Francis Beckwith Explains

Francis Beckwith is granting interviews regarding his reversion to Catholicism. See latest in National Catholic Register. He had been “president of the Evangelical Theological Society, an association of 4,300 Protestant theologians,” since November 2006–six months.

He says that after reading some things about the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, he went looking for the Reformation doctrine in the Fathers of the Church and couldn’t find it.

But what was present was a profound understanding of how saving faith was not a singular event that took place “on a Wednesday,” to quote a famous Gospel song, but that it was the grace of God working through me as I acquiesced to God’s spirit to allow his grace to shape and mold my character so that I may be conformed to the image of Christ.

I don’t recall any Reformer–Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon, Bucer, Oecolampadius, Knox, etc.–who ever suggested that justification was “a singular event that took place ‘on a Wednesday.'”

For one thing, all the Reformers believed in predestination. As Luther said:

This therefore, is also essentially necessary and wholesome for Christians to know: That God foreknows nothing by contingency, but that He foresees, purposes, and does all things according to His immutable, eternal, and infallible will. By this thunderbolt, “Free-will” is thrown prostrate, and utterly dashed to pieces. Those, therefore, who would assert “Free-will,” must either deny this thunderbolt, or pretend not to see it, or push it from them.

And this is certainly in the Fathers–most notably, Augustine.

For another, they all believed that grace does work a change in us–God’s word is creative, and creates the reality it declares, as Luther said in his commentary on Genesis (LW 1:17, 21-22):

…[I]n the beginning and before every creature there is the Word, and it is such a powerful Word that it makes all things out of nothing. . . . [T]he words ‘Let there be light’ are the words of God, not of Moses; this means that they are realities. For God calls into existence the things which do not exist (Rom. 4:17). He does not speak grammatical words; He speaks true and existent realities. . . . We, too, speak, but only according to the rules of language; that is, we assign names to objects which have already been created. But the divine rule of language is different, namely: when He says: ‘Sun, shine,’ the sun is there at once and shines. Thus the words of God are realities, not bare words.

And Calvin taught (Institutes 3.16):

We dream not of a faith which is devoid of good works, nor of a justification which can exist without them: the only difference is, that while we acknowledge that faith and works are necessarily connected, we, however, place justification in faith, not in works. How this is done is easily explained, if we turn to Christ only, to whom our faith is directed and from whom it derives all its power. Why, then, are we justified by faith? Because by faith we apprehend the righteousness of Christ, which alone reconciles us to God. This faith, however, you cannot apprehend without at the same time apprehending sanctification; for Christ “is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption,” (1 Cor. 1:30). Christ, therefore, justifies no man without also sanctifying him.

It is thus a caricature, and false, to depict the Reformation understanding of justification as “a singular event that took place ‘on a Wednesday'” (or, worse, a “sprinkling of snow on a pile of dung”–an expression many Catholic apologists claim Luther used, but for some reason none has ever been able to cite a source).

Beckwith says:

Catholicism does not teach ‘works righteousness.’ It teaches faith in action as a manifestation of God’s grace in one’s life. That’s why Abraham’s faith results in righteousness only when he attempts to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God.

Catholicism teaches many things. Devotions such as Brown scapulars and First Fridays and Indulgences compete with the theological formulations of Trent and Vatican II for attention. Many Catholics do indeed believe in “works righteousness.”

As for Abraham, Paul says in Galatians that he was justified when he believed God’s promise. God didn’t make promises to Abraham after the sacrifice of Isaac–God made the promises to Abraham at the very beginning. He made them unconditionally. He revealed himself to Abraham, Abraham believed, and God made a covenant with him. Abraham’s faith was demonstrated on many occasions, including when he obeyed God regarding Isaac. Paul was speaking to those who wanted to force Gentiles to keep all the prescriptions of the Torah–he notes that Abraham was justified by faith alone, not by works of the Torah, which was added centuries years later. James speaks to those who might take this teaching to extremes and imagine that one could believe and not do any works. They are using justification in two different senses, in two different contexts. Beckwith should know this.

The issue for the Reformers was this–what will you put your trust in? When your conscience is troubled, when you feel that you must be under the judgment and condemnation of God, when your spirit is disquieted–where do you turn for comfort? In what do you place your hope? We can place our trust solely in Christ, who is apprehended by faith. We can’t pull ourselves up to him. We can’t climb to him up Sinai’s cliffs. We can’t bargain with him. We can only say, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

(See also James White’s comments on Beckwith’s interview.)

7 thoughts on “Francis Beckwith Explains

  1. “Devotions such as Brown scapulars and First Fridays and Indulgences compete with the theological formulations of Trent and Vatican II for attention.”

    How so?

    “Many Catholics do indeed believe in “works righteousness.”

    But that is not the formal teaching of the church. What would you do if someone joined your church but did not adhere to all the teaching of your church?

  2. How so? Let’s put it this way — I’ve heard lots of Catholics who know how many First Fridays they need to observe to go to heaven, how to bury St. Joseph to sell their house, all the blessings that come with wearing a scapular, but very few who are even familiar with the term “justification”–and those who are are mainly concerned to state what it is they don’t believe.

    The teaching of the Church isn’t “works righteousness”? Indulgences are the teaching of the Church, and they are all about “works righteousness”–works that benefit you or another person. Paying for masses to be said for a dead person–that’s all about “works righteousness.”

    Scripture says, however, that all our righteous deeds are as filthy rags (Is. 64:6). That all have sinned and (continue to) fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).

  3. Bill, considering that Lutheranism and Calvinism also believe in sanctification, which is accomplished by “works”, your definition of “works righteousness” as “works that benefit you or another person” indicts all the major Christian traditions.

    No, the teaching of the Church isn’t works righteousness… as you well know, the Church teaches that we can do nothing to merit initial justification. Yes, we can cooperate in the work of sanctification, but if that’s “works righteousness”, then I don’t know of a tradition that denies it.

  4. You make an assumption in saying that sanctification is accomplished by us, by works. It is the work of God in us. He is the one who sanctifies us–we don’t sanctify ourselves.

    You prove my point in your second paragraph–Catholicism teaches “no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion,” but “moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2010).

    Yes, that’s a very bald form of “works righteousness,” and was the very reason for the Reformation.

  5. I think the key phrase is “moved by the Holy Spirit.” We can only merit graces in and through Jesus Christ–we can do nothing of ourselves. It is only by cooperating with God and His grace that we are able to merit anything at all.

    Your quotation of Isaiah doesn’t contradict this point. All our righteous deeds, apart from Jesus Christ, are indeed as filthy rags.

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