What Catholics Can Learn from Evangelical Protestants
by Francis J. Beckwith
Francis Beckwith is a recent “revert” to the Catholic faith who made headlines in when he stepped down as president of the Evangelical Theological Society in May 2007 after reentering the Church in late April. We asked him to provide some insight, based on his experiences in Catholicism and in Evangelical Christianity, on what Catholics can learn from their Protestant brethren about becoming articulate, educated defenders of the faith in the world today.
In 1975, at the age of 14, I left the Catholic Church and became an Evangelical Protestant, which I remained until I was publicly received back into the Church on April 29, 2007, at the age of 46. I have no doubt that my return to the Church would not have been possible if not for what I learned during my journey from my numerous Protestant brothers and sisters.
My faith in Jesus, as well as my intellectual development as a Christian scholar, was nurtured, deepened, and sustained by a body of literature and a tapestry of resources largely unknown to the Catholic world, even though there is much in Evangelical literature and ministry-life that can benefit Catholics and strengthen their faith.
There are, of course, real disagreements between Catholics and Evangelical Protestants on issues of theological importance such as justification, church authority, apostolic succession, and the sacraments. For this reason, some Catholics may be hesitant to explore Evangelical authors and ministries. This would be their loss, for outside of these disagreements there is so much that we have in common. And in those areas of commonality, Evangelicals have much to offer Catholics.
Reasons for Our Hope
Catholics often speak of the “Great Tradition” handed down to us by our ecclesiastical predecessors. This Tradition includes both the ecumenical creeds of the Church’s first five centuries and the Bible, the written Word of God. Of the creeds, Catholics are most familiar with the Nicene Creed, which is recited at the celebration of the Mass. Yet, few Catholics are adequately catechized to understand the Creed’s scriptural and philosophical foundations.
So, for instance, if a Catholic is asked to offer support for the Creed by friends from faiths that deny most portions of it—for example, Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses—the Catholic typically has nothing to say except that the Creed is what the Church teaches. But such a response does not do justice to the command of St. Peter to “always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Pet. 3:15b–16).
Evangelicals, like Catholics, accept the Nicene Creed, as well as the inspiration and authority of the Bible. But because Evangelicals put a premium on equipping their congregations for evangelism and cultural engagement, many of their scholars have developed biblical, historical, and philosophical arguments that support key elements of the Nicene Creed, much as the Early Church Fathers once did for Catholics.
Consider just one example. In 2004, Evangelical philosophers Paul Copan and William Lane Craig published an impressive book, Creation ex Nihilo: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Exploration. The authors defend the Nicene Creed’s assertion that God is the creator and source of everything that contingently exists, that God is the “Maker of all things, visible and invisible.” This book is loaded with scriptural, philosophical, scientific, and historical arguments as well as responses to critics of the doctrine. Although the book is sophisticated, it is, like many other works produced by Evangelical scholars, accessible to the educated layman.
Books like this are plentiful in the Evangelical world. Consequently, it is not unusual to find in Evangelical bookstores works that deal with a variety of topics and issues such as the reliability of Scripture, the existence and nature of God, the life of the mind, the historicity of Christ’s Resurrection, the reasonableness of the Christian faith, the existence and nature of the soul, and so forth.
This is why in a 2004 issue of First Things, Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote that “Evangelical Protestants are taking the lead” in the rebirth of Christian apologetics in the United States. Among the Evangelicals mentioned by Cardinal Dulles were Craig, Norman L. Geisler, and J. P. Moreland.
Taking It to the People
Evangelicals have an unprecedented network of ministries that equip the laity in a variety of ways. Leaders of these ministries are particularly gifted in the ability to make the works of Christian scholarship accessible to the person in the pew. Among the best of these ministries that should interest Catholics are Stand to Reason (STR) and Summit Ministries.
According to its website (www.str.org*), “Stand to Reason trains Christians to think more clearly about their faith and to make an even-handed, incisive, yet gracious defense for classical Christianity and classical Christian values in the public square.” Among its training programs is “The Masters Series,” a series of two-and-a-half-hour Monday evening lectures offered in a Southern California Evangelical church from early January until early March. Each week attendees hear a different speaker. Among them have been STR’s gifted president, Gregory P. Koukl, as well as leading Christian scholars such as Craig, Moreland, Scott B. Rae, Gary R. Habermas, Craig J. Hazen, Hugh Hewitt, Phillip Johnson, and J. Budziszewski (a Catholic). Because these lectures address lay audiences, the speakers craft their messages in accessible language for the purpose of equipping the congregation to be able to fulfill St. Peter’s command.
Summit Ministries (www.summit.org*) focuses on providing Christian high school and college students with the intellectual tools for cultural engagement. This should be of special interest to Catholics concerned about how we should properly equip the Church’s next generation.
At each of Summit’s 10 two-week sessions held every year between mid-May and early September, 100 to 200 Christian young people are taught about the philosophical and theological content of the Christian worldview and how best to honestly and carefully address critiques of it. Among the instructors are scholars, professors, and popular speakers including myself, Koukl, Moreland, Michael Bauman, Charles White, H. Wayne House, and Summit’s founder and president, David Noebel. Some of the issues discussed include moral relativism, literature and Christianity, Augustine v. Pelagius, law and religion, the sanctity of life, science and theology, and the philosophical case for the soul.
Although a self-described Evangelical ministry, Summit’s doctrinal statement consists of only the Apostles’ Creed. Its students, most of whom are Evangelical Protestants, are encouraged to read authors from a wide range of Christian traditions including Catholicism. So it is not unusual to overhear Summit students discussing with each other or their instructors the works of Catholic authors like Budziszewski, G. K. Chesterton, Robert P. George, or Peter Kreeft, whose works are sold at the Summit bookstore alongside those of well-known Protestant authors.
Don’t Pass It Up
Although some of the Protestant authors and ministries I have mentioned here have been critical of aspects of Catholic teaching, these criticisms are rare and usually minor or tangential to the author or ministry’s overall mission. For example, STR has published a few articles critical of Catholic theology, although they are offered with charity and a spirit of respect. As long as the Catholic is discerning and well-grounded in Catholic theology, he or she need not be worried about the possibility of such incidental distractions.
At the end of the day, our Protestant brothers and sisters offer too many wonderful insights to pass up. These are insights that will not only help deepen our Catholic faith but also offer to us a model of how we can duplicate these sorts of works and ministries in our own dioceses and parishes. By encouraging mutual dialogue and respect, it could also, perhaps, lead us closer to the unity for which Jesus prayed: “And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (Jn. 17:11).
Francis Beckwith blogs at http://francisbeckwith.com.
*Catholics United for the Faith does not endorse all the content presented in the websites mentioned. It does, however, along with the author, encourage its members to learn what they can from their Protestant brethren in order to reach our post-modern world with the truths of the faith.