Head of Evangelical Group Converts to Catholicism

A controversial Baylor University professor has resigned as president of the Evangelical Theological Society, after receiving full communion in the Roman Catholic Church.

Francis Beckwith, associate professor of church-state studies at the Baptist-affiliated university in Waco, Texas, reported in a blog that he and his wife decided in late March to become Catholic.


Baptized as a Presbyterian, she must complete the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults before receiving sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation.


Because he received the sacraments as a child, all Beckwith had to do was go to confession, request forgiveness for his sins, ask to be received back into the Church and receive absolution. Beckwith said he "received the sacrament of Confession" April 28 at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Waco, and a day later was publicly received back into the Catholic Church.


To avoid drawing undue attention to his conversion or the Evangelical Theological Society, Beckwith said he originally planned not to seek absolution until his term as president expires in November, and then to decline nomination to the ETS executive committee. He said he changed his mind, however, when his 16-year-old nephew asked him to be his sponsor at his Confirmation in May, which requires he be a full member of the church.


Beckwith said he does not intend to resign as a member of ETS, and he planned not to step down as president until his term expires. After bloggers began criticizing his conversion, however, he decided to resign as both president and a member of the executive committee effective May 5.


Beckwith is no stranger to controversy. Twenty-nine descendants of J.M. Dawson, a longtime Waco pastor and first executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, protested Beckwith's appointment as associate director of Baylor's J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies in 2003.


The family objected to Beckwith's association with the Discovery Institute, a think tank that supports teaching intelligent design in public schools. The Dawson descendants called it "a ruse for getting a religious notion into the public schools--clearly a violation of the separation of church and state." They urged then Baylor President Robert Sloan to remove Beckwith from the Dawson Institute and reassign him to "another, more appropriate, position."


This January Beckwith quietly stepped down as associate director of the Dawson Institute, according to a biographical sketch on his Web site. In June he joins Baylor's philosophy department, where he will become associate professor of philosophy.


Beckwith was denied tenure in March, 2006, due at least in part to his association with the Discovery Institute. He won an appeal Sept. 22, 2006, and received tenure.


Last November Beckwith became 57th president of the Evangelical Theological Society, an academic society with more than 4,100 members.


Beckwith said in his blog he can "in good conscience, as a Catholic, affirm the ETS doctrinal statement," and therefore does not intend to resign as a society member. He denied rumors that anyone on the executive committee asked him to step down as president.


Beckwith said he has always been "Catholic friendly" in his academic work, but he would never have predicted he would return to the Church.


That began to change in January, he said, when, at the suggestion of a friend, he began reading the Early Church Fathers and "some of the more sophisticated works on justification by Catholic authors."


"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," Beckwith wrote. "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."


"Moreover, much of what I have taken for granted as a Protestant--e.g., the catholic creeds, the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, the Christian understanding of man, and the canon of Scripture--is the result of a Church that made judgments about these matters and on which non-Catholics, including Evangelicals, have declared and grounded their Christian orthodoxy in a world hostile to it," he added.


"Given these considerations, I thought it wise for me to err on the side of the Church with historical and theological continuity with the first generations of Christians that followed Christ's Apostles."


Conservative Baptist blogger Tom Ascol commented, "These are certainly curious days when the president of the Evangelical Theological Society resigns his position in order to return to full communion with the RCC."


But Beckwith isn't the only new thinker questioning evangelicals' historical rejection of elements of Catholic teaching.


Timothy George, a Southern Baptist and dean of Samford University's Beeson Divinity School, wrote a Christianity Today article in 2004 titled "The Blessed Evangelical Mary," arguing the time has come "for evangelicals to recover a fully biblical appreciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her role in the history of salvation--and to do so precisely as evangelicals."


Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission once said he had more in common with Pope John Paul II than with fellow Baptists Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.


Not everyone is joining the trend, however. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, went on "Larry King Live" in 2000 to declare the Catholic Church a "false church" that teaches a "false gospel."


"I believe the pope himself holds a false and unbiblical office," Mohler said.


Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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