Catholics and evangelicals together

returnI picked up this little book at the 2008 annual Evangelical Theological Society meeting last November in Providence, Rhode Island. Francis Beckwith, who was the former ETS president in 2007, narrates his return to the Roman Catholic church. This fine book is divided into two parts: personal narrative and theological reflection. I found the latter part to be quite insightful since Beckwith provides his raison d’être for becoming a Catholic again (he was baptized as an infant in the Catholic church). Beckwith’s reflection focuses on the Reformers’ notion of imputation versus Catholic’s infusion of righteousness and grace. This reflection, not surprisingly, is based on several Patristic readings, which, I believe, today’s evangelicals could greatly benefit from. I’ve always found the idea of “forensic” imputation to be arbitrary and stilted. To be sure, Catholics have never understood the Christian life to be one of working for salvation, but always a justification by faith. Justification and sanctification (evangelicals call it regeneration) in Catholic understanding are both more organically related than the simple declaration of being justified as evangelicals understand it. After reading this book, I’m with Carl Trueman on this:

Rome has a better claim to historical continuity and institutional unity than any Protestant denomination, let alone the strange hybrid that is evangelicalism; in light of these facts, therefore, we need good, solid reasons for not being Catholic; not being Catholic should, in other words, be a positive act of will and commitment.

I suspect that Beckwith’s return to Catholicism was made possible only due to his active involvement in evangelicalism since his teenage days. Beckwith’s journey represents a marriage that is possible between the best of Catholicism with its theological rigor and strong ecclesial life, and the thoroughgoing evangelicalism of Protestantism. This hybridity is something I’m deeply attracted to. I only wish evangelicals would recognize the richness of the Catholic tradition, and come to see Catholicism as a valuable dialog partner in gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of the historic faith that has been passed down to us by the first witnesses of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

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