Francis J. Beckwith - "Never Doubt Thomas"
1:41AM Jul 10, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Francis J. Beckwith
Today it is our tremendous honor to be speaking with Dr. Francis J. Beckwith. Dr. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State studies and Associate Director of the graduate program and philosophy at Baylor University. He's the author of many, many books, including a recent release that we're going to be discussing today. Never doubt Thomas, the Catholic Aquinas as Evangelical and Protestant available from Baylor University Press in 2019. Dr. Beckwith, thank you so much for joining us today.
Thank you for having me.
Dr. Beckwith since Pope Leo XIII encyclical way back in 1879, if my Latin pronunciation is okay, I quote I call the encyclical Aeterni Patras which I understand is Eternal Father. And anyway, Pope Leo XIII, In this famous encyclical stated that that Roman Catholic theologians at colleges and seminaries will focus their theology on Thomas Aquinas. So for a good 150 years or so, Thomas Aquinas has been the principal, the archetypical, Roman Catholic theologian, but you're presenting to us a Thomas Aquinas that's terribly useful both for the Catholic and the Protestant theological enterprise. When did you first plan to start writing this book?
Wow, that's, uh, probably about four or five, maybe six years ago. I had always had an interest in Thomas Aquinas since graduate school, actually, before graduate school. When I was in college, I read several evangelical authors who are very sympathetic to, to to Aquinas, one of one who recently passed away Norman Geisler and another Stewart Hackett, R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner. And I was always drawn to Aquinas. But as I got older and begin began reading more and more about both criticisms of Aquinas, as well as ways in which a non Catholic thinkers appropriated Aquinas, I began getting I think, a richer, I think, deeper understanding of what Aquinas was trying to do. When I began thinking about working on this book, I had a couple of fears. One fear was that I don't consider myself an Aquinas scholar, I am Thomist and as one of my friends said to me, when I shared this concern, he said, Yeah, but you have skin in the game. And in the sense that much of what Aquinas taught and and preached and discussed are things that I believe in so so about five, five or six years ago began thinking about working on working on it and and as I said, I entered it entered the project with a little bit of trepidation and learned a lot in the process.
Dr. Beckwith you mentioned Norm Geisler, Norm Geisler, of course was hugely inspired by Thomas Aquinas. Did you ever have a relationship with Norm Geisler? Was he a teacher of yours? Or did you encounter one another at any point?
Oh, very. Yeah, we were very good friends. I met norm in the actually the mid 1980s. Not face to face. I was at that time, a doctoral student at Fordham University in New York City. And I had put together a manuscript on Christian apologetics that I was actually working on. And I look back it was it was not very good. I was in my mid 20s. I thought I knew more than I did. And I called him up at his house and I said, Would you read it? and give me feedback? And he did. And he actually wrote detailed comments in the margins. And he was very gracious. And so and then I, first couple of years, taught at Southern Evangelical Seminary over the summers, when he was the he had been the founder and president of it in the I think a couple of times in 1990s. And then once around 2003 or so, so I knew I knew him fairly well. And when I returned to the Catholic Church, as you can imagine, he wasn't entirely pleased. But, you know, he was somebody that I give credit to introducing me to to Thomas Aquinas.
So in your book, Never Doubt Thomas, you take us into this journey of, of watching Thomas Aquinas' theology apply to many different areas that are of intense interest. Both to Catholics and Protestants but but perhaps Perhaps making applications that we've not seen done before, for example, you show how Aquinas informs arguments for intelligent design isn't how does this work if you would? And is intelligent design inherently more Catholic or Protestant?
Yeah, well sort of get to get to Aquinas. Let me give a little background about intelligent design as I understand it. So, within the past maybe 20 or 30 years has been there's been a movement among certain scholars, philosophers, and some scientists, kind of critiquing aspects of the Darwinian story. And the two most prominent defenders of this view are William Demski and Michael Behe and the, the crux of their arguments have to do with inadequacies in the way in which Darwinian evolution accounts for the development of species over time and the difference complexities that arise in the development of living organisms. One of my criticisms of that view in the book is that it treats divine action as if nature needs to make space for God to act. So for example, one of the arguments that Michael Behe he uses is this argument from the bacterial flagellum, which is a part of the cell that actually involves something that is analogous to what he says is kind of the back motor of a boat to use as a metaphor or an analogy. And he says that this sort of thing would not arise in slow let's say, additions over time as sort of the Darwinian story. In other words, it has to be irreducibly complex. My one of the things that that I think Aquinas would say to that is that, that there's that God is not only the creator of those things that seem to be complex and beautiful and involve a kind of appear, at least for us appear to be designed. He's also the creator of those things that we attribute to chance and law, which design advocates like Behe and Demski say. They say that they don't, that they're not those things that are our design. Now, I think, as a theist, we should say that God is the creator of everything, not just those things that seem to sort of stand out when we look at creation. So I, as I say in the book, I think the Intelligent Design advocates, some of whom are our friends of mine. I think they have their hearts in the right place. But I think they're giving far too much real estate away to naturalists and those that are calling critical of fears and people like Richard Dawkins and others. So, in a sense, Aquinas believes, obviously, if the universe is designed, but he doesn't think that in order to detect design, you need to have some sort of elaborate theory to exclude chance and law, he would argue that design is ubiquitous within creation, that is even simple things like scientific laws, or even things that appear to be the result of chance. underneath them. There's a kind of final causality. So to use an illustration. So imagine you're tossing dice. There's a kind of chance element to it, but in order to determine the odds of any roll that you may have, you need to have sort of background beliefs about an order of the universe that's already present. And for that, I don't think you need to figure out what is improbable or not I think it's just part of the nature of reality. And so Aquinas would say that, that, that there are in nature final causes that is everything in a sense is ordered to something. And that is enough to show that the universe is designed. So for example, thinkers like Dawkins and others, they presuppose all the time final causality in their writings. They often talk about even natural selection, working on organisms, organisms changing over time as a result of natural selection working on random mutation, well, that has a kind of end game to it right, a kind of orderliness and so I have my, an application of Aquinas is thinking to intelligent design debate is that I think the idea advocates are kind of trying too hard, in other words.
Dr. Beckwith, thank you very much for that reply and intelligent design, Aquinas informs that, in a unique way. Thank you for unpacking that a little for us. And you also bring up how Thomas Aquinas influences our understanding of justification by faith. Now, we understand that since 1999, with the so called Joint Declaration on the doctrine of justification, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation came together and created a statement that both parties could agree on concerning the doctrine of justification by faith. That's great news. Does, how is it that that Aquinas continues to inform our understanding of justification by faith? And are there elements in this doctrine of justification by faith where Roman Catholics and Protestants still disagree today?
Well, yeah, that's a great question. I mean, I think where the disagreement, I'll begin with the disagreement and I think It's a mess. It's a metaphysical disagreement. And what I mean by metaphysical that it has to do with the nature of justification in terms of what grace does. So for the Catholic, grace is what is ,this sort of a technical term that some Catholic theologians use, that grace is a divine quality, that it actually changes nature. But that grace allows us to, it actually changes us from the inside out. And so, when a Catholic For example, when, let's say, a Protestant reads Catholic accounts of justification, one of the mistakes I think that is made is that is when it talks about when this literature talks about works and the function that works play in the justification of the believer, it isn't as if works are a kind of there's not a kind of cosmic balance sheet. It isn't as if sort of, you know there that you add up your works and they outweigh your bad deeds and you wind up getting to heaven. It's It's as if God is working through you through the grace that he's given you. And so in a, in an odd way, when, for example, the Protestant authors talk about the holy spirit being poured into the believers heart. I mean, there's almost it's a very close parallel. I'm not saying that there aren't differences. I think there are but it's, it's, and so you'll often hear some of my Evangelical friends say, well, the way we determine whether someone is truly justified is sort of the outworking or the sanctification that results afterwards. And so in a weird way, both Catholics and Protestants think that works, if you will, have a they're a kind of condition of justification. It's just it's a it's in the case of Protestants to kind of subsequent condition but it's not something that you actually do to earn grace. It's something that grace actually gets cashed out in the individuals life. I don't think the Catholic view was that far away. And I do I say that I think it has more to do with kind of these deeper philosophical beliefs about the role that grace plays as a divine quality. So this is why some Protestant authors, as I pointed out in the in the chapter in the book of folks like Geisler and Gershman and Sproul will read Aquinas as a kind of almost like paleo Protestant, and it seemed to me a kind of mystery how they read him that way. And I think they read him that way. Because Aquinas is not responding to The Protestant Reformation. So if you read the Council of Trent, for example, I mean, there's all these rhetorical flourishes, right? Why is that? Because there's this sort of, there's this group of individuals that have rejected or resisted and have left the Catholic Church. Aquinas as as not dealing with that. There's no sort of adversary, right. He's sort of just articulating what he believes the church has always taught. And so there isn't that kind of edginess to his writing. And so I think that folks like Sproul Gerstner. And and Geisler read him that way. Because, first of all, I think they loved him. And it's always you know, when you read someone that you love, you want them to agree with you. So I think there's a lot more going on in the way we read authors in general, than just what the text says. So so I think that's where the disagreement is. I do think that in fairness, To my Protestant friends, I think that the way in which some Catholics conduct their lives gives them the impression that it really is just a matter of works righteousness. On the other hand, Catholics, I think, sometimes a mistaken view of the Protestant understanding of justification. And sometimes they caricature it as cheap grace. So I do think that it's important that when we read each other, that we understand that in some cases, it's really a vocabulary problem. And it's also again, I think this deeper philosophical issue. So this is something I don't talk about in in Never Doubt Thomas, but it's something that I've shared in other contexts. I read the Council of Trent for the first time when I was 22 years old before I had been trained in philosophy in graduate school. I reread the Council of Trent in 2007. After being a philosopher for nearly 30 years, and I was interesting, there were things that I noticed in the Council of Trent that I missed when I was younger. And I had a lot to do with the, you the use of the categories of Aristotelian philosophy to explain justification. So for example, in the Council of Trent, they talk about the five causes of justification. I immediately thought to myself, Oh, my, if they're using it sort of parallel to, to Aristotle's four causes, I wouldn't have known I didn't notice that when I was 22. So I do think that one of the things that I sort of would advise people when they're reading literature by either Protestants or Catholics that you kind of pause and maybe think are their deeper sort of assumptions here that I'm missing because I'm reading it through the lens of my particular way of understanding things. You know, to use a kind of Simple example. It'd be me imagine somebody reading the Bible for the first time and believing that tennis is mentioned in the Old Testament because it says that Joseph served in Pharaoh's court. Right? So you have to sort of be careful. And any event that's, you know, my take on it,
Dr. Beckwith, how do we get right at that? I mean, what what your book is so fascinating, then is because it is pulling out these deeper philosophical issues and helping us understand the way that that Protestants and Catholics have been reading these sources, but through different lenses. From a methodological point of view, how do we how do we do that? What would your counsel be?
Yeah, I think to try to find bridge literature and what I mean by that people that do know, you know, both, you know, both traditions. You know, those are sometimes difficult to come across, right? So I think that's one thing. The other is to is to read commentaries by people that, you know, I do this today so so right now I'm going through from the beginning to the end the Summa Theologica. And I've never done that before. I've, I've read large portions of it. So about a year and a little over a year ago, I saw about little, almost two thirds through it. And I'm reading alongside of several commentaries, because there there are aspects to the way which will say medieval thinkers talk about certain questions that they use seemingly the same language that we that, let's say contemporary philosophers use but they need it in slightly different ways. So there are you know, obviously writers that know this and they are so I've discovered for example, Reading even portions of Aquinas that I thought I knew well, reading commentators they can, I didn't really I would have missed that if I hadn't read that. And this is true by the way of reading scripture, right? There, there are things that that let's say a first or second century writer may pick up because of cultural assumptions and cultural beliefs that a 21st century person will miss. And that's where you have to read people that do know that.
Dr. Beck within 2007, you announced your conversion to the Roman Catholic Church and also then put in your resignation notice as president of the Evangelical Theological Society one week later. To what degree did Thomas Aquinas and your familiarity with Thomas Aquinas influence your conversion decision?
Yeah, well, I it wasn't technically a conversion. It was a reversion. So I had been brought up Catholic and then left as as a youngster so in my early teens, so Aquinas had an influence in this regard. When I, when I was a young Evangelical the first kind of academic writers that I gravitated to, were some of the names that I mentioned earlier Norm Geisler to a lesser extent, RC Sproul, John Gerstner. And then also, somebody I had not mentioned Ronald Nash, although Ronald Nash wasn't a Thomist he was a platanus, he was an Augustinian platanus. And so, the first Evangelical authors that I read were authors that were very sympathetic to the use of philosophy in the development of Christian theology. And so I think that that which is the very least from my perspective, very Catholic way to approach theological questions. So I think that way Thinking about theology made it easier for me to be open to the use of philosophical language and categories to better understand theology. So issues like for example, the doctrine of transubstantiation, or issues of grace and faith that were shaped by a philosophy as found in Catholic literature I was more receptive to the other thing is that I did my PhD at Fordham University in New York City, which is a Catholic school and the professors that really influenced me the most were professors that were very friendly to Thomas Aquinas one was Father Norris Clark, a Jesuit priest, and the other was a another Jesuit priest named Jerome McCool. Although I will tell you that after leaving Fordham i don't think I had I considered myself a kind of Thomist but it took me maybe up until my early 40s to really understand what Aquinas was trying to say. So I think I would have identify, I did identify as a Thomist, but I'm not sure if I was a good Thomist. Maybe I was just as Ralph McInerney said, Maybe just a peeping Thomist.
Dr. Beckwith, if I may ask you, in your view, what are the real impasses to ecumenical progress today?
Yeah, I think I think that the biggest hurdles, I think first has to do with ecclesiology. I think issues of, of whether there's such a thing as a Christian priesthood and whether that is ultimately derived from something like Apostolic succession, so the Office of the papacy, the question of the authority of Bishops Also, I think the role that tradition plays in the development of Christian doctrine. Although I do think that the issue of tradition actually depends on what sort of Protestant or Evangelical you're talking to. So I do think that there's, there are actually disputes within, in the Evangelical world about that. But I do think those those are two primary issues. I mean, oftentimes people bring up questions about kind of distinctly Catholic views on, let's say, the nature of Mary, and praying to the saints and the doctrine of purgatory. And those are I don't want to diminish those as important disagreements, but I do think if the issues Apostolic succession and the priesthood were to, let's say, be resolved in some way, I think those other issues kind of fall into place because those issues ultimately I think, depend on the ecclesiological issues as well as the question You know, the priesthood.
Dr. Beckwith, I'm sure you get this kind of question from your students. What do you advise those who are considering converting or reverting to an older church tradition, whether that's the Roman Catholic Church, perhaps the Anglican Church, perhaps the Eastern Orthodox Church? I'm sure that happens at Baylor as it does in my circles as well. What advice do you give to a young student contemplating that decision?
That's a really good question. I've had that a couple of times. I had a student 12 years or 13 years ago, who he at that time, actually, I was still an evangelical and he was thinking about Catholicism and I, I don't know if I would say this today, but at the time, I told him, I didn't want to give him advice. And the reason for that is that what if I had convinced him not to become a Catholic but in his mind that was the only type of Christianity that was plausible. Would I actually have then pushed him to unbelief? So there's this interesting sort of subtle problem that I didn't it just is it occurred to me 14 years ago when I was talking to this young man. Do I you have, let me put it this way, you have to be careful in not being too much of an advocate for the position you think is right. Because you could or to be too critical of the position you think is wrong, because if you do that, you could actually push the person away from Christianity entirely. So I tell this to actually, I, you know, I I can easily imagine, you know, this kind of scenario, you get a young college kid who's, let's say, grew up Presbyterian and kind of like real tough Catholic kids like descend upon them and instead of converting to Catholicism, he just no longer believes in Presbyterianism or any Christianity, so I think the thing you have to do if you're if I were to, you know, talk to a student today, I would, I would tell them to try to read people from their own tradition, as well as the one that they're thinking about converting to, and, you know, not to be too much of a proselytizer. And I know there going to be Catholics and Evangelicals that disagree with me on that, but I, I can again, I can easily imagine, you know, for some people, especially if they grow up in a certain way, that could be like the only type of Christianity that you think is plausible. And if you talk them out of that, then you talk them out of Christianity, and I'm, I'm not sure that's the right way to go.
That's a very sober reminder. And brings brings me back to the comment that you made earlier than in our discussion about bridge literature, the importance of bridge literature, finding people who understand both Both traditions, both understandings of Christianity, and who can articulate their understanding of those differences. Thank you. Thank you very much. Dr. Beckwith, if I can close with a question that we've been asking all of our interviewees on this program, and that is this, what would it mean for the church today to be united? I trust we hope for the reunion of the church. But what would that even mean? How would we recognize a United Church? And what is it that we can do as Christians to pursue the unity for which Jesus prayed and John 17?
Yeah, well, I will. I'll give you the two answers. I'll give you the the least realistic answer. The one that I think obviously, as a Catholic, I think that Catholicism is the most correct form of Christianity, and my hope is that everyone is in some way, in full communion with the Catholic Church and that means that people you know, are put themselves under the authority of the church. So that's sort of the ideal, the one that's probably highly unrealistic. I think in terms of sort of practical unity today. I think there are ways that we can work together in our mission to present the gospel. And that means that could mean a variety of things. It could mean cooperating in works of mercy, that is doing the things that the church ought to do in terms of its relationship to the wider culture, offering its services to the poor, helping to make sure that our communities in advance the good, the true and the beautiful. I think it also means learning trying to understand each other better. So it's, I very much Enjoy it. I've enjoyed over the past 1213 years. Speaking at Evangelical meetings, churches as well as conferences, I think I actually encouraged. I've had a couple of Catholic kids who were invited to go to a Protestant Bible study at Baylor and I go, go to it. You know, I think so those sorts of things are, you know, just a little things. And so on this Wednesday, coming up is Ash Wednesday. And, ah, we had at Baylor a couple of years ago, an ecumenical Ash Wednesday service, if you can believe it. And the Catholic priests participated in it. Of course, there were, you know, each tradition had its own restrictions and the I was actually quite proud of the chaplain at Baylor. He was very Careful in making sure to be sympathetic to those who did not want to get ashes from somebody that they thought they shouldn't get ashes from. So they actually had five Christian ministers giving ashes. And so, you know, the Catholics who felt uncomfortable with a non Catholic giving them ashes could go to the Catholic priest and vice versa. And the Bishop of Austin only had one restriction that, that the ashes could only be blessed by the Catholic priest and all the Protestants agreed to allow that. And it was done. So there are little things that I mean, like that. Some people may find that uncomfortable, but I do think that, you know, if there are ways that we can cooperate liturgically that don't violate our consciences, then we should do it.
That's very interesting, because I would have assumed that Catholic sins were basically the same as Protestant sins, too, but I don't know. So maybe repenting for those sins with ashes, it seems like we'd all be wearing the same ashes. Dr. Beckwith, we are really, really appreciative of your time today. It's been our distinct pleasure to be speaking with Dr. Francis J. Beckwith, Professor of Philosophy in church-state studies and Associate Director of the graduate program and philosophy at Baylor University, also authored the texts that we've been discussing today. Never Doubt Thomas, the Catholic Aquinas as Evangelical and Protestant at Baylor University Press. Dr. Beckwith, thank you so much for being with us today.
Thank you for having me.