The evangelical world encountered another skirmish this week with the election of conservative public intellectual (and erstwhile Catholic) Dinesh D’Souza to the presidency of King’s College.
Where this fever-pitch overreaches is the mistaken belief that King’s is lessening its Protestant standards. I’m not sure how one arrives at fearing the desecration of a Protestant institution by a haphazardly Catholic who now proudly attends an evangelical church.
Opinions from both sides have weighed in on the matter. Opinions on the debate include notable Reformed church historian Carl Trueman and Francis Beckwith. Moreover, Christianity Today included a lengthy piece on the subject along with the evangelical Drudge himself, Justin Taylor, who simply highlighted the key terms of the debate.
As best as I can tell, Trueman and Beckwith disagree with the election of D’Souza as each understands it from their own respective tradition. Trueman castigates King’s for tabling the importance of their theological charter while Beckwith disagrees with the apparent minimalism from which D’Souza and King’s argues. Both men lay great importance on the disjunctive realities presented in the Catholic and Protestant debate.
While Trueman and Beckwith demonstrate fine points, Mr. D’Souza deserves our defense more than he does our evangelical antipathy. Trueman and Beckwith’s positions do not err inasmuch as I believe there are other issues to consider in this debate.
Parsing both significant and insignificant theological nuance is as important as ever, but the larger issue of cultural co-belligerency, especially in our times, reigns supreme. King’s may be perceptive in recognizing this first. And they may not be the last. And lest we assume that King’s has thrown in their hat, I don’t recall there being any official announcement that King’s is intentionally catering to Catholicism. Marvin Olasky has said as much in recent days, dismissing the rumor that King’s is an environment ripe for evangelicals converting to Catholicism.
What this issue ultimately proves is the impending necessity for both evangelicals and Catholics to work together on issues of social relevance. This is why, despite the well-articulated arguments by those opposed to the Manhattan Declaration, I believe that mild separationism will do far more harm to both evangelicals and Catholics than any perceived, minimal devitation from strict doctrinal standards. From where I stand, neither Catholics are evangelicals are willing to compromise. And that’s okay. No compromise is necessary for maintaining a vibrant Christian witness.
Particularly on the college level, it is right for stalwart evangelical colleges to remain stalwartly evangelical. The same can be said for Catholics and their institutions. What this suggests, however, is that both spectrums need not mitigate against the potential for a “third way”—colleges which are purposefully more ecumenical in blend.
Trueman and Beckwith are both right, and I stand here not as a reincarnated catalyst for Evangelicals and Catholics Together. But what I see, despite the correct distinction between colleges and seminaries, is the need for Christian colleges to stand for a strong cultural witness. This may mean, in the case of D’Souza, that such a cultural witness includes a strong political witness. Call me a latent apologist for a new Christendom, but King’s College is unique in fostering a bold Christian witness along the lines of Reformed Social Thought— a type of thought not seen as being in direct contradiction to Catholic Social Teaching in its implications for society. All disagreements aside over the lack of a “Christian consensus” on the “Christian World Life View” as Trueman calls it, the vision of King’s College is forged with a traditionally conservative political agenda. And, if I’m interpreting Trueman correctly, he’s okay with that as long as we admit our affinities. The decision of choosing D’Souza lies as much, perhaps even more so, in his political and cultural acumen than in his theological influence or for that matter, insufficiencies. Disagree with me if you will, but the terms of Christian influence in society lie more so in the crucible of ethical consensus and witness between Catholics and evangelicals than strict theological unanimity between the two.
I never want to diminish the important dividing lines of justification. There are firm, irreconcilable differences. Yet, however distant the two traditions may be on issues of soteriology, there still remains robust consensus on the sanctity of marriage and life. Such an alliance provides fertile ground for continued cultural engagement—especially in view of the diminishing significance of Christian influence in society. If we grant that King’s political and ethical witness appear to be inseparable, then the election of D’Souza is far more palatable and helpful than it is something to spurn.
You said: “From where I stand, neither Catholics are evangelicals are willing to compromise.”
That may be true for many, but influential theologians and public evangelicals like N.T. Wright (and the New Perspective on Paul) and Chuck Colson have bent over backwards to saturate the evangelical political sphere with statements of agreement with the RCC, leaving unsophisticated observers with the perception that the RCC and evangelicals really are united. Nonetheless, the official positions on (say) Sola Fide remain irreconcilable, though (say) Wright has done his best to pretend that faith-alone is not really that big a deal.
Sure, there is agreement between the RCC and Protestant worlds about many heresies, as expressed by the creeds. And sure, there is general overlap between worldviews. But as Trueman points out, these differences are not minor. In fact, they are quite major, and they run down to epistemology.
The problem with this general cobelligerency business, I submit, is making general noises about unity and agreement without also noting areas of disagreement and how significant they are. Many evangelicals have a prejudiced and distorted understanding of RCC theology. Without properly educating evangelicals on the significance and differences between RCC and Reformation theology, the prejudiced evangelical may rebel against the Reformation when she finds out that the RCC doesn’t adhere to the Pelagian heresy (however much the people in the pews do).
As I see it, the solution is to keep the dividing lines quite clear. That would require Kings and D’Souza to be both clear about where they stand, if anywhere, on (among other things) Sola Fide.
@Greg, that seems like a fair enough idea. I’ll put it into the “About” page at the top of Mere-O at some point in the near future.
Matt–you recently provided the clarification below (thank you). Given today’s fine piece by Mr Walker & your clarification, I wonder if would be helpful to place the Creed(s) (Nicene/apostolic) on the front page of Mere-O so that we’re all on the same page?
We all go to various churches, and have various denominational backgrounds. Our goal is to try to keep that in the background to what we’re doing here, though, which is agitate for a robust orthodox Christian faith in the public square that takes the witness of Scripture as expressed in the Nicene/apostolic creeds as authoritative.
Hence, *mere* orthodoxy.
What that means is that we avoid the “which tradition” question as much as possible, as it is beside the point for us. As a rule, I will not have it here at Mere-O. We arrive at the authority of that orthodoxy differently, but once there we find we have some pretty good common ground to be co-belligerents from.
That isn’t a direct answer to your question as much as a statement about how I approach these things, and why I have asked everyone who writes here to do likewise.
Thanks for reading. I hope that clarifies what we’re about.
“The evangelical world encountered another skirmish this week.”
Well stated. It seems we Evangelicals are always getting our shorts in a bunch. I have listen to Mr. D’Souza on a couple of ocassions and always found him to be a staunch defender of the Christian worldview against any and all comers. I know the theological and cultural differences that divide Protestants/Reformed & Catholics are not easily swept under the rug and need to be honestly acknowledged. Yet, it’s stuff like this that makes me wonder who’s side I’m really on. It seems just seems to me that through it all the name of Christ is sullied right in front of the world. At times like this, I may just go ahead and convert. “Hail Mary! Full of Grace” notwithstanding.
I appreciate your comments, and in fact assert–in the blog post to which you link–that Catholics and Protestants ought to work together on those issues concerning our common culture:
There is a sense in which D’Souza is right. Yes, Christians from a variety of traditions can agree on much, and often work together in advancing the common good in a variety of causes both inside and outside their respective communities. And he is indeed correct that Christians, as well as other theists, should make a winsome and intelligent case against the philosophical materialism on which the most pernicious affects of secularism rely. D’Souza has made important contributions to advancing such a case, and even has been wisely circumspect in distancing himself, though respectfully, from those Christians who believe that intelligent design should play an integral role in the project of the Christian philosophy of nature. (My own pilgrimage on this matter may be found on the BioLogos website).
I do think though that the way one supports this understanding should not require us to claim that our differences are “mere squabbles.” Some of them are, to be sure. But some of them are not. For example, Steve writes that “it seems we Evangelicals are always getting our shorts in a bunch.” In the Catholic Church, it is the magisterium that wears the shorts, and thus there is no debate on bright line cases of heresy and apostasy. Thus, it is not within the scope of the ordinary Catholic’s authority to declare what is a mere squabble and what is outside the pale of orthodoxy. So, as a Catholic, you can be a Molinist or a Thomist, but you can’t be a Lutheran. You can be a Franciscan, Dominican, Jesuit, or Viatorian, but you can’t be a Methodist. You can be Eastern Rite or Western Rite, but not Reformed.
So, ironically, for the Catholic, the sort of questions that preoccupy Evangelicals–like, “What is an Evangelical?,” “Can you be an open theist and an Evangelical?”,” “Calvin or Arminius?,” “Women’s ordination?,” etc.–are not even on our radar. I can see from D’Souza’s point of view that these seem “mere squabbles.” But there are those who disagree on two fronts. Those to his left will say that what he considers “orthodox” is itself a mere squabble, and those to his right will claim that one side of the mere squabble rejects “the gospel.”
I do hope and pray that D’Souza is a successful president. And I do agree with him that Christian higher education in some venues may be better served by a broad understanding of “mere orthodoxy.” In fact, that is precisely what we are doing at Baylor, within the confines of a Baptist university that identifies itself as such.
Thanks for commenting on my post. Having an individual of such acumen as yourself contribute to the conversation is quite humbling.
In reply to your reply to me, I simply say: “Ditto;” you’re right, acknowledging our differences theologically will only serve our ethical and political witness.
If Christianity was essentially a moral movement, I might agree with you. There is much more at stake than this. Additionally, whether or not what one agrees that Dinesh should be President of King’s, all should be concerned about his seventh grade answer to the question of how a Roman Catholic could be the President of an evangelical institution – as in he is not really an RC but he won’t deny his roots in the RC and that he believes in born again. What???? Dinesh has more mental firepower than that answer. I can only assume that the real conflict is something he is refusing to answer. The apparent reason seems to me to be Dinesh’s moral vision rather than evangelical commitments. And I do not believe this is sufficient for actual leadership of an evangelical institution.
… his seventh grade answer to the question of how a Roman Catholic could be the President of an evangelical institution – as in he is not really an RC but he won’t deny his roots in the RC and that he believes in born again. What????”
I agree. It would seem,to Evangelicals such as us (HA!) the answer he gave is a sophomoric answer. Yet, it is the same type of answer Dr. Beckwith, former president of ETS gave as his reason (among many) for returning to his roots in the RC world. And Dr.Beckwith is no slouch.
However, when you say “I do not believe this is sufficient for actual leadership of an evangelical institution” just remember it was Martin Luther who, I think said “I’d rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian.”
OOPS! I just read over my previous post and I didn’t intend for that to come across as implying the answers given are comparably “sophomoric.” Don just made the assertion that, in some ways Mr. D’Souza’s reason was somehow limited in respect to the kind of answer an “evengelical” would offer. I have found at times, the type of answers catholics give (and in some small way, aren’t we all ‘C’atholics) are more than sufficient & the answers we Evangelicals attempt to give go beyond what is written is what can only be understood as the mystery that is God.
It’s important to note that while Dinesh D’Souza was raised in a Roman Catholic family, he now describes himself as a born-again evangelical Christian.
“Yet, it is the same type of answer Dr. Beckwith, former president of ETS gave as his reason (among many) for returning to his roots in the RC world. And Dr.Beckwith is no slouch.”
Different set of circumstances, Steve. Read my account of ETS here:
i published a different, and more full version, in the Josephinum Journal of Theology, which you can find here:
ETS’ statement of faith was just the sort of “mere” statement that King’s College does not have, and about which Carl Trueman laments. Hence, my case was different.