There's No Such Thing as a Catholic Evangelical

Recently, Francis Beckwith, a respected philospher at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, announced his return to the Roman Catholic Church. That is interesting enough, given that Baylor is the flagship school of Texas Baptists. But Beckwith simultaneously resigned from the presidency of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), and later resigned from the organization entirely.

His reported reason for the latter move was apprehension about the contentious nature of the ETS, which has been roiled by sometimes-vituperative controversies–most recently over so-called open theism (a new form of evangelical theology, promulgated by Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, Greg Boyd, and others, that suggests that the future is “open” because even God does not know it for certain).

According, however, to the acting president of the ETS, Hassell Bullock of Wheaton College, Illinois, the main issue was simply that Beckwith, as a Roman Catholic, could no longer subscribe to the ETS’s statement of faith, which includes the following clause: “the Bible alone and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.”

Orthodox Roman Catholics certainly should affirm that “the Bible in its entirety is the Word of God written,” and they do. Catholic theologians from Thomas Aquinas to Benedict XVI would agree–and they would probably agree with something approaching inerrancy (the conviction that the Bible is without error), once carefully defined.

But no good Catholic would settle for “the Bible alone” as “the Word of God written.” For at least since the Council of Trent in the 16th century, which formalized Roman Catholic doctrine in the face of Protestant provocation, and again in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the Roman Catholic Church championed Tradition as an equally authoritative revelation from God.

(“Tradition” is understood here as the authoritative pronouncements of church councils, popes, eminent theologians, and others whom the Holy Spirit has directed to provide revelation to the Church beyond that contained in the Bible.)

This distinction is well understood by both sides of the Protestant-Catholic divide. That’s why the Catholic councils say so, and that’s why classical Protestant confessions and contemporary evangelical statements of faith say so.

What’s odd is that Professor Beckwith didn’t seem to think there was a problem here. He seems to have thought he could stay on as president of the ETS even after his move back to Catholicism, and then quietly leave office. He also seems to have thought that he could remain a member of ETS.

Up here in Canada in the mid-1990s, the late historian of Canadian religion, George Rawlyk of Queen’s University, notoriously announced that he and the Angus Reid polling company had found what Rawlyk called “Catho-Evangelicals,” people who held to evangelical beliefs within the Roman Catholic Church. This discovery caused something of a stir in the media, but it was a simple, and important, mistake.

The pollsters had failed to distinguish between belief in the Bible as the Word of God written–which, again, any good Catholic would affirm–and belief in the Bible as uniquely authoritative as a text–which, again, no good Catholic should affirm.

Yes, Catholics can be “evangelical” in the fundamental sense of believing and preaching and living the “evangel”–the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Even though I have many and deep disagreements with it, I gladly recognize Roman Catholicism as genuine Christianity (although I doubt that any Roman Catholics have been nervously waiting for my endorsement).

But if we take “evangelical” as a noun, to denote those Christians who stand in the tradition of the eighteenth-century revivals and who belong today to the international fellowship of evangelical churches, organizations, and individuals, then there is simply no such thing as a Catholic evangelical.

Someone who belongs to the Catholic Church and in fact espouses truly evangelical beliefs therefore is an evangelical, of course, but not a Catholic: The two categories are simply mutually exclusive. The Roman Catholic Church says so, Protestant churches say so, and the ETS says so. It’s odd that anyone would say otherwise, therefore, but apparently some people still do….