On May 5, 2007, I resigned as president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), and two days later I resigned my membership, one I held for more than 20 years. I did so because I quickly realized — after news of my April 29, 2007, public reception into the Catholic Church had spread like wildfire on the internet and in the media — that there was no way that ETS could conduct business with my continued presence on the executive committee or its membership. In fact, soon after my resignation, two ETS members proposed extensive changes in the organization’s doctrinal statement so that no one would ever question the indelible Protestant character of ETS. Although not supported by the ETS executive committee, their proposal will be voted on by the membership at this week’s annual meeting in Providence, Rhode Island. These changes, if passed, would leave no doubt that ETS excludes all non-Protestants from its membership.
One may ask why I waited six days after my public reception into the Catholic Church to resign my ETS presidency, and eight days to resign my membership. I did so because I did not believe that the present ETS doctrinal statement is inconsistent with my Catholic beliefs. My resignations were motivated entirely by my desire not to cause needless offense to my brothers and sisters in Christ from whom I have learned so much in my over three decades in the Protestant world. Nevertheless, I still believe that the ETS doctrinal statement is broad enough to allow Catholic members. (In fact, I remain a member of the Evangelical Philosophical Society [EPS], which has an identical doctrinal statement.)
I know many of my friends and colleagues, both Protestant and Catholic, will disagree with my reasoning and believe that ETS should remain exclusively Protestant. I understand and respect that point of view, and appreciate the sincere and thoughtful theological convictions that ground it. But much has changed over the past 5o years. As post-Vatican II Catholicism has become more attentive to Scripture — precisely because of its willingness to take Protestantism more seriously than in the past — early 21st-century Evangelical Protestantism has become more aware of the debt it owes to the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, in which and from which creedal Christianity developed in relationship with the formation of the canon of Scripture. There is much to be gained from Catholic and Protestant scholars, committed to Christian orthodoxy and a high view of Scripture, interacting in an academic setting in which they may learn from each other.
In a press release only days after my resignation, the ETS executive committee explained why it believes that a devout Catholic cannot, in principle, be a member of ETS, let alone its president:
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.
Specifically, it posits a larger canon of Scripture than that recognized by evangelical Protestants, including in its canon several writings from the Apocrypha. It also extends the quality of infallibility to certain expressions of church dogma issued by the Magisterium (the teaching office of the Roman Catholic Church), as well as certain pronouncements of the pope, which are delivered ex cathedra, such as doctrines about the immaculate conception and assumption of Mary.
We recognize the right of Roman Catholic theologians to do their theological work on the basis of all the authorities they consider to be revelatory and infallible, even as we wholeheartedly affirm the distinctive contribution and convictional necessity of the work of the Evangelical Theological Society on the basis of the “Bible alone and the Bible in its entirety” as “the Word of God written and . . . inerrant.”
The ETS doctrinal statement asserts more than just a view of Scripture; it also makes a claim about the nature of the Deity, that “God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.” But this claim and all the rich metaphysical ideas it imports without attribution from the victorious side of the intra-Christian debates of the fourth century which resulted in the Nicene Creed — “person,” “one in essence,” “equal in power and glory” — are not explicitly stated in the inerrant Bible that the ETS maintains is alone the Word of God.
Assuming that the ETS believes that its formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity is a true description of God, then this formulation is an item of revelation: theological knowledge that one could not have arrived at without God’s having chosen to reveal it. It is not a deliverance of natural theology, something that one could discover with unaided natural reason. But this would mean that ETS accepts “a more expansive view of verbal, infallible revelation,” which puts ETS in precisely the same position it attributes to the Catholic Church.
The ETS executive committee further points out in its letter that the Catholic Bible has seven books in its Old Testament canon (called “deuterocanonical” by Catholics and “the apocrypha” by Protestants) that are not in the Protestant Old Testament. That is certainly true, but it’s not clear why that is a sufficient reason to exclude Catholics from ETS.
First, although no one doubts that the founders of ETS had the Protestant canon in mind when they used the word “Bible,” they were sophisticated enough to know that most Christians in the world, both East and West, belong to communions that accept the Catholic canon, which is the canon recognized by the local councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage III (397). Although some individuals in the Church raised questions about whether the deuterocanonical books should be included in the biblical canon, no synod, council, or body within Western or Eastern Christendom explicitly rejected these books as non-canonical prior to the Reformers doing so in the 16th century.
Second, at the 2006 meeting, while I was serving as President-Elect, the membership passed a resolution that added this statement to the bylaws: “For the purpose of advising members regarding the intent and meaning of the reference to biblical inerrancy in the ETS Doctrinal Basis, the Society refers members to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978).”But the Chicago Statement not only does not provide a list of canonical books, it states that “it appears that the Old Testament canon had been fixed by the time of Jesus. The New Testament canon is likewise now closed, inasmuch as no new apostolic witness to the historical Christ can now be borne.” This, ironically, means that the ETS is implicitly showing sympathies for the Catholic canon.
As J. N. D. Kelly points out in his book Early Christian Doctrine:
It should be observed that the Old Testament thus admitted as authoritative in the Church was somewhat bulkier and more comprehensive than . . . the Hebrew Bible of Palestinian Judaism. . . . It always included, though varying degrees of recognition, the so-called Apocryphal or deutero-canonical books. The reason for this is that the Old Testament which passed in the ﬁrst instance into the hands of Christians was not the original Hebrew version, but the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. . . . In the ﬁrst centuries at any rate the Church seems to have accepted all, or most of, these additional books as inspired and treated them without question as Scripture.
Third, because the list of canonical books is itself not found in Scripture — as one can ﬁnd the Ten Commandments or the names of Christ’s Apostles — any such list, whether Protestant or Catholic, would be an item of extra-biblical theological knowledge.Take, for example, a portion of the revised and expanded ETS statement of faith suggested by the two ETS members following my return to the Catholic Church. It states that “this written word of God consists of the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments and is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behavior.”
But the belief that the Bible consists only of 66 books is not a claim of Scripture — since one cannot ﬁnd the list in it — but a claim about Scripture as a whole. That is, the whole has a property — “consisting of 66 books” — that is not found in any of the parts. In other words, if the 66 books are the supreme authority on matters of belief, and the number of books is a belief, and one cannot ﬁnd that belief in any of the books, then the belief that Scripture consists of 66 particular books is an extra-biblical belief. This would, by implication, now bring another item of revelation into the ETS orbit of inerrant beliefs that already includes the Trinity statement and the original inerrancy statement about Scripture.
Thus, if the list of canonical books and the ETS statement as a whole are themselves items of inerrant theological knowledge — which the ETS must accept in order to ward off the charge of incoherency — then, again, the ETS accepts “a more expansive view of verbal, infallible revelation” than their statement currently claims.
In the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, the Catholic Church affirms, just as the ETS affirms, that the Bible is God’s inerrant word written:
Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.
Moreover, the Catholic Church does not hold, contrary to what the ETS press release claims, that the infallibility of the Magisterium and the ex cathedra papal pronouncements are of the same nature as the Word of God written. As Dei Verbum states (as translated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church):
Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith (emphasis added).
According to the Church, the Bible itself, though infallible, arose from the life of the Church in its liturgical practices and theological reﬂections. It is a source of theological truth, to be sure, and uniquely the Word of God written. But the Church maintains, quite sensibly, that the Bible cannot be read in isolation from the historic Church and the practices that were developing alongside the Church’s creeds — creeds that became permanent benchmarks of orthodoxy during the same eras in which the canon of Scripture itself was ﬁnally ﬁxed.
So, for the Catholic, the Magisterium and the papacy are limited by both Scripture and a particular understanding of Christian doctrine, forged by centuries of debate and reﬂection, and, in many cases, ﬁxed by ecumenical councils. Consequently, the Catholic Church and its leadership are far more constrained from doctrinal innovation than either the ETS or the typical Evangelical megachurch pastor.
For example, Gregory Boyd, a Baptist theologian and pastor of a St. Paul, Minnesota congregation, denies that God knows the future, and bases this denial on a literal reading of Scripture. This is called the Open View of God. Two open theists, Clark Pinnock and John Sanders, could not be removed as members of ETS in a 2003 membership-wide vote. (For the record, I voted against removing these men from ETS, because I do not believe its doctrinal statement is inconsistent with open theism, even though I think that open theism is deeply ﬂawed). Sanders and Pinnock affirm both inerrancy and the Trinity, and they seem to embrace these views sincerely and without mental reservation.
Yet, in contrast to them, Pope Benedict XVI is constrained by settled doctrine — including Scripture, ecumenical councils, and prior ex cathedra papal pronouncements. Pastors and theologians like Boyd, Pinnock, and Sanders are constrained only by “inerrancy” and “the Trinity,” which means (at least theoretically) that they could embrace any one of a variety of heresies condemned by the ancient Church and yet still remain an ETS member in good standing: Nestorianism,Monophystism, Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, or the denial of Christ’s eternal sonship.
Yet oddly, Catholics who embrace the Church that claimed to have the ecclesiastical authority to condemn these heresies — and which provided to its separated progeny (including Evangelicals) the resources and creeds that provide the grounds for excluding these heresies — apparently have no place in ETS. St. Augustine, whose genius helped rid the Church of the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian heresies,would not be welcomed in ETS or as a faculty member at virtually any evangelical seminary, because the Bishop of Hippo accepted the deuterocanonical books as part of the Old Testament canon, the deposit of sacred tradition, apostolic succession, the gracious efficacy of the Sacraments, the Real Presence of the Eucharist, baptismal regeneration,and the infusion of God’s grace for justiﬁcation.
But within ETS there is a wide variety of Christian perspectives that can legitimately claim the label “Evangelical.” So, if the term “Evangelical” is broad enough to include high-church Anglicans, anti-creedal Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, the Evangelical Free Church, Arminians, Calvinists, Disciples of Christ, Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventists, open theists, atemporal theists, social Trinitarians, substantial Trinitarians, nominalists, realists, eternal security supporters and opponents, temporal theists, dispensationalists, theonomists, church-state separationists, church-state accomodationists, cessationists, non-cessationists, kenotic theorists, covenant theologians, paedo-Baptists, Anabaptists, and Dooweyerdians, then there should be room for an Evangelical Catholic.
Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and is presently serving on the faculty of the University of Notre Dame as the 2008-2009 Mary Ann Remick Senior Visiting Fellow in the Notre Dame Center for Ethics & Culture. His most recent book is Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic (Brazos Press, 2009), from which this essay is adapted.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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