It’s now old news that Francis Beckwith has returned (converted back?) to the Roman Catholic Church of his youth. His change of denomination does however provide the oppurtunity to continuing discussing a few of what I am coming to believe are the primary issues for us Evangelicals to think through and grapple with in the 21st century. These issues are primary not in terms of ultimate importance, but in terms of order. Until questions about how to relate to the “older” church denominations, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican/Episcopal, have been thought through, none of the more ultimately pressing questions (about evangelism, managing church growth, styles of worship, how to relate to the secular culture, politics and government, and education) can be answered with any surety. The Church united can face these issues. The Church divided cannot. Therefore, questions of church tradition are the gateway, a key that unlocks the power promised to Christ’s body on earth.
During the past seven years, since I began university education, I have gone from being totally ignorant of Christians of the past, to being vaguely aware of them, to being acquainted with, familiar with, fervently adoring of, and now, utterly dependent upon them and their writings. Especially Christians from before the Reformation and before the Great Schism (1) (2), mediated through the teaching of professors or later commentators, have exercised the greatest of influences on me. I do not hold it secret that I believe “tradition,” in one or several of its various meanings, is not only highly interesting, beautiful, helpful, and useful, but absolutely essential to the continued life of the Church of Christ on the earth.
The precise sense in which “tradition” is thusly necessary, and which tradition exactly, are the questions I pose for readers to discuss.
A few quotations from Beckwith, along with commentary, to get us started:
“I became convinced that the Early Church is more Catholic than Protestant and that the Catholic view of justification, correctly understood, is biblically and historically defensible. Even though I also believe that the Reformed view is biblically and historically defensible, I think the Catholic view has more explanatory power to account for both all the biblical texts on justification as well as the church’s historical understanding of salvation prior to the Reformation all the way back to the ancient church of the first few centuries.”
This comment skillfully rephrases the question that has come up so many times in discussions with my strongly reformed friends. The question, I have learned through much trial and error, is not, “Which position is biblical?” But “Given that both positions are biblical, which is more biblical?” The additional comment about the “church’s historical understanding of salvation prior to the reformation,” is crucial. If I had heard and understood this simple comment when I was just beginning to research these issues, it would have saved me much time and energy. The fact is, all Evangelicals and Protestants believe that the behavior and beliefs of Christians of the past two hundred years are important and worth knowing, not only for their own sakes but for the sake of “knowing ourselves” as evangelicals. We trust Evangelical Christian tradition; how can we avoid looking more deeply into Christian tradition as a whole? Especially the non-Catholic, non-Orthodox, non-Protestant sources such as the Early Church Fathers, such as Ignatious, Justin Martyr, Maximos the Confessor, Basil the Great, Gregory the Great, Anthony of the dessert, etc… These powerful, Christlike authors exhibit the life of Christ in an age void of our sins, and bursting with virtues we sadly lack.