Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A new review of Return to Rome

Just came across this long, and negative, review of Return to Rome by a fellow named William Webster.

I do not have the time to respond to it in great detail, especially given my brutal publishing schedule. But I do think it is an instructive review in this regard, and thus I encourage readers of this blog to take a look at it: it is an example of what I call zero-sum apologetics.  This occurs when an author pools disparate resources while taking on one issue at a time in order to destroy one enemy.  What's wrong with that? Lots. Because of its singular target and use of disparate sources, it unwittingly concedes points not congenial to its larger project.

Take, for example, Mr. Webster's use of Eastern Orthodox scholars to challenge Petrine primacy and infallibility. If these arguments succeed, then Catholicism is not a live option for him. Fair enough. But this leaves him with a more difficult problem: Orthodoxy requires a belief in apostolic succession and the normativity of Church Councils, both of which are rejected by Webster. That is, the Orthodox critique of the Roman papacy presupposes the truth of apostolic succession and conciliar ecclesiology. They are not free church Baptists looking for a trail of blood!

Moreover, until the 16th century--with the exception of a few tiny heretical sects--there was no Christianity outside of the West and the East, both of which held generally the same views on the sacraments, ecclesiology, and the scope of the canon.  This is why it does no good to mine the words of the Fathers on the nature and authority of Scripture without bringing to bear on those words the liturgical and ecclesiastical beliefs and practices that were integral to the life of the Church.  It would be like taking the First Amendment's establishment clause and saying it means "separation of church and state" while ignoring the fact that the authors of that clause opened their session of Congress with prayer! Once you see the practices in play, what first seemed like a clean and simple account becomes difficult to sustain.

I did not call it "zero sum apologetics" when I was writing Return to Rome, but that is what I should have called it when I penned the following (pp. 92-93; emphases and endnotes omitted):
Of course, some Church Fathers disagreed with each other on a variety of matters, and some of them in fact defended positions that were later declared heretical by Church Councils. But it is interesting to note that on the question of the correctness of the doctrines and practices over which contemporary Evangelical Protestants and Catholics generally divide—the Real Presence of the Eucharist, apostolic succession, prayers for and to the dead, penance, infusion of grace, etc.—one does not find in the Fathers warring camps with one risking an ecumenical council’s judgment of heresy, as in the Arian and Pelagian controversies. In fact, for the Fathers the correctness of the “Catholic” doctrines and practices seem conspicuously uncontroversial. To be sure, one finds among the Fathers different degrees of emphasis on some of these matters and how best to understand them and conceptualize them. The 4th century Donatists, for example, denied the efficaciousness of sacraments administered by bad ministers (e.g., apostate bishops, those that denied the faith during persecution and then returned, etc.), but they did not object to the notion of a sacrament being an efficacious means of grace per se. This error led St. Augustine to develop the ex opere operato teaching on the sacraments, which is the present doctrine of the Catholic Church. To cite another example: some Fathers explicitly assert the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, while others either ignore the question of episcopal primacy altogether or seem to articulate an understanding of the episcopate that offers some hints but little clarity on the question of primacy. But what is not in dispute is that none of the Fathers either denies apostolic succession or unequivocally affirms a Free Church understanding of church government. I mention this because I had thought for some time that if I could, for example, show that Church Father X asserted the primacy of Rome and Church Father Y did not do so, then the case for apostolic succession is weakened and I have yet another reason not to move Romeward. But, when I ceased reading the Fathers anachronistically, what I began to notice was the far more important fact that Church Fathers X and Y agreed that without apostolic succession there is no Church, and that no Father implies or affirms that apostolic succession is a non-Christian view. Thus, one of the great ironies of my journey is that I would sometimes inadvertently draw conclusions that made the general case for Catholicism far more plausible in my mind than the particular Protestant doctrine for which I was arguing.
Because Return to Rome was not meant to be more than a thumb-nail sketch of my personal journey and not an apologetics treatise, there is much more I could have written. I do think, however, that some critics like Mr. Webster make the mistake of focusing on the book's last three chapters and ignoring the first four.  I say this because they tend to see my reversion as merely the consequence of the several months between my election to the ETS presidency in November 2006 and my resignation in May 2007.  But it is in the first four chapters that you see the real formation of my philosophical theology, from my entree into Thomism via Norm Geisler to my experiences at Fordham University under the guidance of W. Norris Clarke, S. J. and Gerald McCool, S. J. and to my conclusions about the Catholic creeds in the late 1980s. So, by the time I reach January 2007 I am closer to Rome than I had ever suspected. Understandably, those on the outside looking in, such as Mr. Webster, see a sort of superficial quickness in my reversion, which inspire questions and concerns such as, "Why didn't he read more?," "He wasn't deliberate enough!," etc.  Perfectly understandable, if my journey had begun in January 2007. But it had not. At age 46, with decades of reading and study, there was not much I had not seen. The difference, however, is that I saw it in a new light.  Take, for example, my reading of the Fathers. I had become acquainted with the writings of the Church Fathers when I was 19 when I began witnessing to Mormons who claimed that the classical concept of God was a late invention in Church History.  When I became an academic, I returned to the Fathers in my work on Mormonism, in which I dealt with a more sophisticated version of the same charge: the classical concept of God has been illegitimately shaped by Greek philosophical categories and thus is unbiblical. In a 2001 piece in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, I respond to this argument in great detail. (What surprises me now is how very, very Catholic I sound even then!)

I do think that Mr. Webster is not entirely accurate in his assessment of my presentation of the Reformed and Catholic views of justification. Concerning the former, I say this in Return to Rome (pp. 84-85; emphases and endnotes omitted):
What is the Reformed doctrine of forensic justification? It is the view that one is made right, or justified by God, as a consequence of God gratuitously imputing to one Jesus’s righteousness. By dying on the cross in our stead and thus for our sins, Jesus paid the price to God for the punishment we deserve, eternal separation from Him. One is justified at the moment one accepts Christ at conversion. But this acceptance, an act of faith on the part of the believer, is itself the work of God. Thus, justification is entirely a consequence of God’s grace. Accordingly, at conversion one is assured of salvation, for there is nothing that one can do or not do to lose or gain one’s redemption. But the grace one receives is legal or forensic. This means that grace is not real stuff that changes nature, but merely the name given to God’s graciousness by legally accounting to us Christ’s righteousness. This is why it is called the imputation, rather than an infusion, of God’s grace. Sanctification, or as McGrath calls it, regeneration, is a consequence of one’s conversion, the internal work of the Holy Spirit in one’s Christian journey. Good works, the exercise of the Christian virtues, and the change in one’s character over time are the natural outgrowth of one’s justification. But justification and sanctification are different events, though the latter, which extends over the lifetime of the converted sinner, follows from the former in the life of the authentic Christian. Although McGrath maintains that the Reformed distinction between justification and regeneration is only notional, it is the understanding of justification as exclusively forensic that requires this notional distinction. Thus, even if the distinction is merely notional, the idea that required it, “the Reformed understanding of the nature of justification” (i.e., forensic justification) is, according to McGrath, “a genuine theological novum.”
I could have probably improved on that definition. But I do not think it deserves this assessment by Mr. Webster: "Beckwith then completely misrepresents the teaching of the Reformed faith. He states that the Reformers and those Protestants who have followed in their steps teach that justification is merely forensic. What he means by this is that they teach that salvation is merely forensic and that there is no emphasis on regeneration or sanctification. He states that the grace of God in the Reformed teaching is merely legal affecting one’s legal status but makes no ontological change in a person’s nature resulting in a life of works and obedience." Did I really do that? Was it "an appalling caricature of the teaching of the Reformers and the Reformed theologians"? I'll let the reader be the judge.

As for the Catholic view, I generously quote from the
Catechism of the Catholic Church, whose references include Augustine and the Council of Trent. Mr. Webster, alas, does not believe that the Catholic Catechism teaches the Catholicism that he does not believe. He marshals, in response, several quotes from Catholic sources, including the Council of Trent. But these sources, not unexpectedly, offer nothing inconsistent with the Catechism. What they offer is the Catholic understanding in language that is often misunderstood by Protestants not conversant with the way in which the Church speaks on these matters. For example, one source, Ludwig Ott, writes: "As God’s grace is the presupposition and foundation of (supernatural) good works, by which man merits eternal life, so salutary works are, at the same time gifts of God and meritorious acts of man...By his good works the justified man really acquires a claim to supernatural reward from God...Merit is dependent on the free ordinance of God to reward with everlasting bliss the good works performed by His grace....A just man merits for himself through each good work an increase in sanctifying grace, eternal life (if he dies in a state of grace) and an increase of heavenly glory (emphasis added)."  I explain this sort of description in Return to Rome (p. 105, 112-113; notes omitted):
It seems to me that James [2:14-26] is indeed a problem if one maintains a forensic view of justification. But if one brackets that view and opens oneself to the Catholic view—that justification is the result of infused rather than imputed grace—then one need not think of “works” as activities by which one earns heaven as if one were appeasing a creditor in a debtors prison. Rather, a Christian’s good works are performed in order that the grace that God has given us may be lived out so that we may become more like Christ. As I have said, the purpose of “good works” for the Catholic is not to get you into heaven, but to get heaven into you. The Catholic already believes that he is an adopted child of God wholly by God’s grace. For the practicing Catholic, good works, including participating in the sacraments, works of charity, and prayer, are not for the purpose of earning heaven. For good works are not meant to pay off a debt in the Catholic scheme of things. Rather, good works prepare us for heaven by shaping our character and keeping us in communion with God so that we may be “holy and blameless and irreproachable before him” (Col. 1:22).... 
Because the Early Church was committed to the deep mystery of Chalcedonian Christology—Jesus of Nazareth was both fully God and fully man—it saw no need to divide faith and works, as if they were hostile foes. Thus, it saw a Christian’s obedience, one’s “works,” as the exercise of faith by which the believer undergoes intrinsic transformation while in communion with God. For the Early Church, God became a human being so that human beings may become godly. After all, if works diminish faith’s significance because our co-operation apparently limits God’s sovereignty, then why believe that Jesus really took on a human nature, for does not that imply that God was not sufficiently almighty enough to save us without acquiring a human nature? 
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom,” and yet, “man’s merit . . . itself is due to God.” So, the Christian, though by God’s grace is given the power to cooperate with God’s grace, cannot by her works earn the grace that she receives, just as the addition of a human nature contributed nothing to the glory of the second person of the Trinity. Yet, in both cases, something wonderful happened. To think that God’s sovereignty is diminished by our cooperation is no different than thinking that Jesus was less divine because he took on a human nature. 
The key to understanding Catholic theology is to set aside the assumption that it is always a zero-sum game. Justification is about our being part of a communion of saints, the body of Christ, with whom we can receive and share the unearned, and totally gratuitous wonders of God’s grace, through baptism, the Eucharist, confession, and all the sacraments. I do nothing without the initiation of the Holy Spirit. It is not my merit; it is his. And yet, there is a mystery here. I cooperate with this grace, but I contribute nothing to it. In my obedience, I am allowing the grace of God to transform me. And yet, it is wholly God’s doing. I am confident of my eternal fate, but confidence in that eternal fate is not the exclusive purpose of justification. For God not only wants you to get to heaven, he wants to get heaven into you. And he does so by grace that has the power to change nature.
And now the Catechism, from which I quote on page 91 in Return to Rome:
The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit. 
Trent, Ott, and the Catechism, are saying the same thing, and to it I give a hearty "Amen" in Return to Rome. And yet, Mr. Webster claims "what Beckwith has written here is in perfect harmony with Protestant teaching." Perhaps he is closer to Rome than he thinks.