Much has been said on Catholic and Protestant blogs alike about the reversion to Catholicism of former evangelical theologian Francis Beckwith. Now, some might suggest that there is something psychological rather than theological at work in the case of men in their mid-40s who return to the faith they had spurned as adolescents or young adults. Some others might not be surprised to see Beckwith on the apologetics circuit before long, probably appearing on “The Journey Home” on EWTN; he has already said he will be writing books and articles on his return journey.
Beckwith will remain a professor at Baylor, but has resigned as head of the Evangelical Theological Society. That group’s executive committee has issued a statement on his move, basically affirming that he made the right move in resigning, since he no longer holds to key beliefs that separate evangelicals from Catholics.
In the article to which I’ve already linked (and his comments), and in a Q&A in Christianity Today, he says the issue of justification was an important one. That’s what I said, too, at the time of my entry into the Catholic Church. I, like Beckwith, believed that Lutherans and Catholics had resolved the critical issues. It was naive wishful thinking on my part; I should have paid more attention to serious Lutheran critiques of the JDDJ, including that offered by the LCMS. The JDDJ was an agreement between select theologians of liberal Lutheran churches (not confessional Lutherans) and select Catholic theologians, of whom Joseph Ratzinger played an important role. It was signed with great ceremony in 1999, with ceremonies in Augsburg and in other cities around the world, including Houston. It was discussed thereafter by some scholars, but promptly forgotten by most others. Both the Lutheran bodies that approved it and some Catholic leaders pointed to it as an example of ecumenical victory. But then nothing was done with it. It became one more document on the shelf, just as justification has always been one doctrine among others adhered to by Catholics.
The Joint Declaration was a capitulation by Lutherans to Catholic teaching. It affirms both Lutheran teaching and Catholic emphases–and that is the capitulation. Lutheranism was always clear on what justification is and how it differs from Catholic teaching–Lutheranism always emphasized justification was a declaration, something extra nos, something residing in the person of Christ and always perfect in him. Catholicism always said it was both forgiveness and renewal, forensic and effective, outside of us and within us. Catholicism could always include the Lutheran points as part of its teaching, so it was Lutheranism that had to expand its teaching in order to come to agreement with the Catholic Church.
Three years ago I began to reflect critically on my overly optimistic interpretation of the JDDJ and posted this:
Most of the concessions or attempts at consensus in the JDDJ were possible in the 16th century. Various Catholic and Lutheran theologians sought to find ways of speaking that were more acceptable to the other. Martin Chemnitz, the most important early Lutheran theologian after Luther himself, acknowledged these efforts in his locus on Justification in his Loci Theologici (published posthumously in 1591).
We do not … dispute in this article as to whether contrition ought to be present in those who are to be justified, nor that some change in the mind and will, or renewal or new obedience, ought to follow. We have professed with a loud voice that all of these things do take place in a true conversion. Therefore the controversy is not whether these things should take place, are present, or follow.
The point at issue is this: When the mind is terrified by the recognition of sin and a sense of the wrath of God, 1. What is that entity on account of which the sinner, condemned before God’s judgment to eternal punishment, obtains remission of sins, is absolved from the sentence of condemnation, and is received into eternal life? 2. What is the instrument or means by which the promise of the Gospel, that is, the promise of grace, mercy, reconciliation, salvation, and eternal life, is received, laid hold upon, and applied?
Later, he answers the question:
The point at issue between us … is that they teach that the sinner cannot and must not stand in sure confidence that he is in grace and that his sins have been remitted to him–even when in earnest repentance and true faith created in us by the Holy Spirit on the basis of the Word of God he lays hold on the promise of grace and at the same time upon the Mediator Himself, the Son of God who is our righteousness.
I think the 1985 US Lutheran/Catholic dialogue reached closer to the heart of the matter when it declared,
our entire hope of justification and salvation rests on Christ Jesus and on the gospel whereby the good news of God’s merciful action in Christ is made known; we do not place our ultimate trust in anything other than God’s promise and saving work in Christ (para. 157).
The JDDJ is not as forceful as this.
I noted then the opposing statements (here and here) by various groups of theologians in the US and in Europe, including important ELCA theologians such as James Nestigen, Gerhard Krodel, and Gerhard Forde.
These critics have all pointed out that the teaching of the Catholic Church on many key issues, such as merit, has not changed since the Reformation. Here’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
2027 No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods.
There is no way that this can be reconciled with Reformation thought. This was the critical issue then. It has not changed. This undergirds other Catholic teachings such as indulgences.
Protestant teaching, on the other hand, sings:
Not the labour of my hands
Can fulfil Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears for ever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, else I die.
Mr. Beckwith would do better to say he has rejected Reformation teaching, than to suggest that Reformation thought is now compatible with Catholic thought on this critical subject. These are contradictory teachings. They can’t both be right.