It’s always a bit touchy discussing a recent religious conversion. But there are times when a conversion is so public that talk is bound to come. Such was the case last month when Francis Beckwith, the president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), announced his return to the Catholic Church. Beckwith had been raised Catholic but left the Church as a teenager for Evangelicalism. He has since become a household name in Protestant circles with a dozen books and a tenured professorship at Baylor University (he teaches both philosophy and political science).
Over the past several months, he read through the writings of the early Church Fathers and was struck by the Catholic nature of their belief and practice. After much prayer and discussion with a local priest, he made the decision to recommit to the faith of his childhood.
As might have been expected, the reaction was fast and loud. Protestant controversialists—some apparently loopy from the fumes of freshly printed Chick tracts—let Beckwith know exactly where his jaunt across the Tiber would ultimately lead him. And on the other side, an obnoxious chorus of triumphalist Catholics took the opportunity to transform the philosopher’s quiet and dignified conversion into a bludgeon for Rome.
Of course, in the midst of the theological shouting back and forth, more mature voices could be heard. Moments like these separate the adults from the adolescents—or more to the point, those who practice Christian charity from those who can merely define it.
For his part, Beckwith conducted himself with great sensitivity to the pain his move might cause. Shortly after the news of his conversion broke on a Protestant Web site, he stepped down from his position at the ETS, writing that, “given the immense public attention and commentary that my reception into the Church has provoked, I no longer think that it is possible for ETS to conduct its business and its meetings in a fashion that advances the Gospel of Christ as long as I remain as its president.” He followed that by resigning from membership in the society altogether, hoping to save the organization a tendentious internal debate over Catholic participation in an Evangelical group.
The executive committee of the ETS issued its own statement on the controversy, and their balanced handling of the matter deserves special note. They did not consign the professor to the fires of hell, nor did they accuse him of embracing Mystery Babylon or works-righteousness. Instead, the committee praised Beckwith for his past work with them and wished him well in the future, praying that “God will continue to use his considerable gifts.”
While the Catholic Church will certainly be enriched by such a fine new member, the most significant thing to come out of this situation may well be the discussion that it inspires. This, at least, is Beckwith’s hope: “There is a conversation in ETS that must take place, a conversation about the relationship between Evangelicalism and what is called the ‘Great Tradition,’ a tradition from which all Christians can trace their spiritual and ecclesiastical paternity. It is a conversation that I welcome, and it is one in which I hope to be a participant.”
The problems in American Evangelicalism are no less serious than those confronting American Catholicism. With the movement splintering in every direction, Evangelicalism needs to develop a relationship with the entirety of Christian history, not just the period following the Reformation. Some Evangelicals have already started this work, while others have been at it all along. If the firestorm over Beckwith’s conversion speeds up the process, so much the better.