Monday, December 14, 2009

Protestant Apologist Jason Engwer Grants the Possibility That Catholic Convert Francis Beckwith Might be Saved

I was directed to this thread and found it interesting. Jason Engwer is about as amiable an anti-Catholic Protestant as one can ever come across. He is sincerely struggling with this question of well-known convert Francis Beckwith's conversion to Catholicism. From his perspective (that Catholicism on the whole is hostile to the saving gospel and has Pelagian elements, etc.), he is being as charitable and "ecumenical" as he can be. I think there is something to be said for that.

The most predictable thing to observe in the thread (including the comments) is the usual recourse to the mentality (often noted on this blog) of "the only saved Catholic is a bad Catholic." In other words, to be saved and to attain to the sublime heights of being a Christian (like all our Protestant friends are) is to reject those elements of Catholicism that Protestantism particularly rejects. To be a Christian one has to, in effect, be a Protestant (i.e., a bad, pick-and-choose, "cafeteria" Catholic). So if a Catholic is a Protestant in all the key areas (e.g., sola fide and sola Scriptura) then he is a Christian. If he is a consistent Catholic, he cannot be a Christian, because Catholicism is not Christian. And so Jason writes:

Francis Beckwith has a significant level of knowledge about the relevant issues. . . . He made a decision to return to Catholicism and has remained Catholic after being reminded of the false nature of the Catholic gospel many times and by many people. His decisions to revert to Catholicism and remain Catholic under such circumstances are evidence against his profession of Christian faith. And his unfaithfulness to the gospel is worse than Peter's and the Galatians' in some ways. . . .

He's in a category similar to that of Peter and the Galatians at best. If he's saved, it's by an Evangelical gospel (the Biblical gospel), in spite of the false gospel he's currently associated with.

. . . there can be evidence that somebody accepted the true gospel, then departed from it later in life. A later departure would be evidence that the person was never justified to begin with, but not conclusive evidence.

In a recent comment on the same blog, Jason reiterates:

. . . the possibility that some Catholic and Orthodox signers of the Manhattan Declaration are justified in spite of their group's false gospel isn't sufficient to justify the language of the document about those groups. Individuals who attempt to be justified in a manner contrary to what their group prescribes shouldn't be considered representatives of their group's view of salvation.

A guy in the combox who goes by "Truth Unites" gives a perfect expression of this anti-Catholic notion:

To me, in my humble tentative preliminary opinion, the teaching of a "false gospel" necessarily damns each and every person who abides by it. To me, it's logically consistent to say that all Judaizers are damned to Hell . . .

(2) BUT there are folks, however many, who are saved in the RCC and EOC despite the RCC's and EOC's false gospels.

The possibility of inconsistency and being saved by a thread (the remnants of remaining fragrances of an evangelical past) is as far as the anti-Catholic position can go, and most of the adherents of this ludicrous, self-defeating position do in fact go there. They (except for the fringe of the fringe folks) don't say every Catholic is damned. They acknowledge loopholes. But the most difficult scenarios for them to deal with are converts like Francis Beckwith and many dozens of other known converts whose thinking is observable on the Internet, or on radio or TV, or in books and magazine articles. So Jason writes:

. . . an Evangelical revert to Catholicism is an example of a case that can be hard to judge . . .

A case like Francis Beckwith's involves multiple lines of evidence pointing in different directions. . . . he's an example of a case that seems difficult to judge, . . .

He has some things in his favor that other Catholics don't have, such as a background in Evangelicalism.

The anti-Catholic has to figure out how to analyze those of us who had an evangelical past. They believe we had some knowledge of the saving gospel (as they define it, which isn't really a biblical definition), and so they have to analyze whether we converts rejected that outright when we became Catholic, or inconsistently accept some of it and jettison others; leaving some slim chance of salvation. Hence Jason observes:

When somebody has a high degree of exposure to the gospel, as Americans do, and has at some point professed Christian faith in the context of Evangelicalism, as Beckwith did, those are significant factors that increase the plausibility of an individual's salvation.

He seems to live by high moral standards. That reflects well on him and is a relevant factor in evaluating a person's profession of faith.

He clearly accepts the large majority of the most important truths of the gospel (Jesus' Messiahship, the resurrection, etc.). That's significant.

. . . People are often inconsistent. They hold inconsistent beliefs at the same time or change beliefs from one period of their life to another. They contradict themselves knowingly, as they waver between two views, or unknowingly. . . . People can have a mixture of good and bad motives, . . . They have conflicting desires. . . .

I give Jason credit for at least exercising charity and thoughtfulness. He is a victim of his own false presuppositions as an anti-Catholic, and the endlessly self-contradictory thought therein. But if he can go this far, there is hope that one day he can break out of his self-imposed theological and spiritual restrictions and understand that Catholicism is Christian, too. He goes as far in charity as he can go, given his false anti-Catholic premises:

I think it makes sense for somebody coming from my perspective to at least conclude that his salvation is a reasonable possibility. I hope he's saved or will be in the future, and I would be glad to meet him in Heaven. My sense is that his salvation is probable, though by a small margin, due partly to my limited knowledge.

Having said this, Jason has to immediately preach to the choir, lest he get in hot water himself, and his own evangelical bona fide credentials start being questioned by his cronies:

However, his errors are serious, and they deserve criticism and some degree of separation from him, even if one is confident that he's saved.

Jason knows he has entered dangerous territory in engaging in this discussion:

I suspect that I would have been criticized no matter how I had responded to the question that was asked by Truth Unites... and Divides. If I had ignored the question, I would have been criticized for that. If I had answered, but had been more positive in my evaluation of Beckwith, I would have been criticized for it. Or if I'd been more negative, I would have been criticized for that.

But let it be known that I have lauded him in this thread for going as far as he could go. I think that is a praiseworthy thing, especially by the usual standards of lack of charity that are almost universally evident in anti-Catholic circles.

I thank God that Jason Engwer and other Protestant anti-Catholics are fellow Christians. I think that our Lord will have mercy on their ignorance, and besides, they'll have a lot of time in purgatory to straighten out all their falsehoods and silly caricatures of Catholic teaching, and of Catholics. I truly, eagerly look forward to fellowship in heaven with my anti-Catholic brethren in Christ, when they are at last fully Catholic, and Christians finally start treating each other the way they should: enjoying the unity that God always intended.

It's just too bad that for most of these folks, the realization of their profound error in this regard won't come in this lifetime (so that more unity could be had) and will have to wait till the next. The world could be so much more positively impacted if Christians could figure out who their fellow brethren in Christ are. The devil loves the division. It means that more can be lost because of it: while Christians fight each other and make their effectiveness in proclaiming the saving gospel far less than it would otherwise be.

See also Francis Beckwith's response on his blog. He made several semi-humorous interjections in the combox, including, "By the way, when you finally discover my posthumous fate, please tell me. I've been dying to know."

* * * * *

Steve Hays (the blogmaster of the site where Jason's post appeared) responded with a new post: where he insinuates that I have contradicted myself. I replied in the combox (his words in blue):

On the one hand, Armstrong is offended at our suggestion that the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic. On the other hand, Armstrong takes the position that the only good Protestant is a bad Protestant.

There is no parallelism here, of course, in the way that Steve has suggested. Even "Truth Unites" sees that (though I would say a "bad Protestant" endangers his salvation just as a "bad Catholic" would: by failing to follow what his group teaches about God and salvation).

I assume (in charity, if not with absolutely rigorous theological reasoning) that most (committed, serious) Protestants will be in heaven. I even portrayed Luther in heaven in a fictional dialogue of mine.

But I get the impression that y'all would be shocked to death if you find that I make it, or Beckwith or Scott Hahn, or any number of us apostate converts. If we do, it'll be by the skin of our teeth.

In other words, the position is not that the only good Protestant is a bad Protestant, as if Protestantism were a bad thing. We don't think like anti-Catholics do: that Catholicism is essentially bad, with some good and truth mixed up in it. We say that Protestantism is good and could be better by virtue of the fullness of biblical, historical Catholicism that it lacks.

Really? Is that what the Tridentine Fathers said? Is that what Leo X said in Exsurge Domine?

It's what Popes John XXIII and Paul VI and John Paul II and Benedict XVI have said. You may think that is a contradiction (it is not; more like a strikingly changed emphasis), but you still have to grapple with what the Church has taught, through these recent popes, and the Second Vatican Council.

You can interpret that as you wish (as a reversal or supposed self-contradiction or disproof of infallibility), but it will do no good for you to always cite the understandably more polemical stuff from the 16th century right after the Protestant Revolution, when there is 450 years of further development after that.

He's saying (some) Protestants will be saved when God corrects their invincible ignorance in Purgatory. He's saying (some) Protestants are saved in spite of their Protestant distinctives. That's the mirror image of the loophole he finds so offensive in Protestant polemics vis-a-vis Catholics. So, yes, it's symmetrical.

Nope; Protestants are saved by the blood of Jesus and Grace Alone, precisely as Catholics are (not by not adhering to wrong elements of their theology). Salvation is a positive, not a negative thing. Therefore, they are saved by following their own teaching's deepest truths: ones we fully agree with, as all Christians do, because we adhere to sola gratia as you do.

It's because you deny this that you make flawed analogies that don't fly. And that gets back to square one: what is a Christian; why are Catholics supposedly not that, while you guys are, even though you historically derived from us, and every truth you possess was originally present in the Catholic Church for many hundreds of years before Luther was a gleam in his dad's eye.


Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Could you provide a definition for the term "Anti-Catholic"?

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Oh, one more thing. Can you make the definition for "Anti-Catholic" equally useable and useful so as to derive the definition of "Anti-Protestant" too?

Dave Armstrong said...


Use of the Term "Anti-Catholic" in Protestant and Secular Scholarly Works of History and Sociology

The Legitimacy of the Term "Anti-Catholic" as a Noun as Well as an Adjective

Scholarly Use of the Term "Anti-Catholicism" in Precisely the Way I Habitually Use It (the Theological or Doctrinal Sense)

By exact analogy, "anti-Protestant" in this sense would be one who denies that Protestants are Christians. I obviously don't do that (as reiterated again in this very paper), and so cannot possibly be classified as such.

It's not simple disagreement with Catholicism or Protestantism. The "anti" positions take it much further than that.

I no longer debate anti-Catholics, because of the sheer futility of it. I was simply noting an instance of extraordinary charity on Jason's part, all things considered, and from within his own severely flawed paradigm.

I've written a ton of things in the past that anyone can consult, if they wish to know my positions on these matters. See the web pages:


Rt. Rev. Bishop James White: Grand Poobah of the Online Anti-Catholic Protestant Polemicists

Contra-Catholicism: Featuring Presbyterian Polemicist & Controversialist Tim Enloe

Adomnan said...

The more interesting question is whether Jason Engwer is a Christian. Given that he probably believes that "God condemns the righteous and acquits the guilty"
(Proverbs 17:15), I don't see how he can be. Th god of penal substitution is not the God of the Bible.

Most Protestants are Christians, but most Protestants don't believe that the Father punished an innocent man for others' sin, which would be a crime. Fundamentalists are a different case.

I know that Dave sees this differently.

bossmanham said...


I appreciate your irenic attitude even though I would disagree with you on some theological issues. As a protestant, I hope that the anti-Catholic attitudes and anti-Protestant attitudes on both sides can be resolved.


Most Protestants are Christians, but most Protestants don't believe that the Father punished an innocent man for others' sin, which would be a crime

Actually, most probably do. I'm wondering what happened on the cross if Jesus Himself wasn't taking the punishment for our sins. You act like Jesus had no say in the matter, but as God, Jesus Himself, out of His love for His creation, was accepting the punishment that humanity required on the cross. He died for our sins. "He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him" (Isaiah 53:5) and "it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief" (Isaiah 53:10).

To say it's a crime for a willing party to accept the punishment of others out of love for them is poisoning the well. Christ willingly bore our sins and became sin for us so that we may be righteous before God (2 Corinthians 5:21). The curse of sin is removed from those that believe because Christ Himself became the curse of sin for us (Galatians 3:13).

Sorry, Dave, if this is the wrong place for this debate, but I don't see how penal sub is anti-Catholic, or how it would condemn us protestants.

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi boss,

Thanks for your kind words.

As Adomnan noted, he and I disagree on this. I don't think it is a "deal-breaker," as he does. To me it is no proof whatever that Jason Engwer is not a Christian.

I have written, however, about this business of Jesus "becoming sin":

2 Corinthians 5:21: Was Jesus Christ Literally Made Sin on the Cross? Did He Suffer the Horrors of Damnation? Luther and Calvin vs. the Church Fathers

Adomnan said...

From Bossmanham: "He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him" (Isaiah 53:5)

Adomnan: Yes, he was wounded for our transgressions, obviously, and unjustly executed, but not by the Father.

From Bossmanham: "it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief" (Isaiah 53:10).

Adomnan: The Bible also says the Lord "bruised" Job, but the Lord makes clear at the same time that Job is not being punished, either for his own or others' sin. The same is true of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah.

It's not enough to quote a verse saying that the Lord bruised the Servant. One must find a verse saying that the Lord punished him for others' sin. In Job, the "bruising" wasn't a punishment, and neither was it a punishment in Isaiah 53. "The Lord bruised him" means, in context, the Lord allowed him to be bruised -- as was the case with Job.

Bossmanham: Actually, most (Protestants) probably do (believe in penal substitution).

Adomnan: Not so. Very few Anglicans do. Methodists generally don't. Mainstream and "liberal" Protestants don't. And I believe Lutherans don't either. Luther himself had a neurotic, confused belief in penal substitution, but the Lutherans rejected the idea in doctrinal formulations such as the Augsburg Confession, under Melanchthon's influence. Melanchthon apparently saw the absurdity of the idea. Even many Protestant denominations with Calvinist roots have rejected the doctrine. Nowadays it's pretty much limited to full-blooded Protestant Fundamentalists and Mormons.

Bossmanham: To say it's a crime for a willing party to accept the punishment of others out of love for them is poisoning the well.

Adomnan: The "crime" wouldn't be Christ's. Penal substitution makes Christ an absurd puppet (because of the absurdity of the notion that justice can be served by punishing an innocent man) and a cosmic abused child (because a father wreaks his wrath on his innocent child). Christ is the "victim" according to the doctrine, not the perpetrator of the crime. It is the Father who is depicted as a criminal, and indeed, as an abomination. According to Proverbs 17:15, a judge who "condemns the righteous" is an "abomination to the Lord." Well, the Lord Himself can hardly be an abomination to the Lord.

I'm traveling and can't engage in this debate in detail at this time. I've done so in the past. But I wanted to make these few observations.

Christine said...

Mr. Armstrong,
As a Catholic myself, I've been engaged in a protracted debate over the intercession of the saints with Mr. Engwer here:

Perhaps Engwer had a charitable moment in the past, but in the discussion we've been having, he has resorted to insults and misrepresentation of my position. Unfortunate, as it's making it difficult to make any headway in the dialogue.

Christine said...

In fact, I'm beginning to see the wisdom of your avoidance of debate with anti-Catholics. After over 100 comments, we are making little headway, and he continues to ignore/insult/evade.

Adomnan said...

You know, Christine, I think that poor Jason Engwer might be autistic. Autism would explain the tone-deaf tenacity with which he sticks to non-sequiturs and out-of-context quotes while failing to hear what others say, autism accompanied by obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Jason repeats his one or two points, which usually amount to a childish insistence that a particular word or phrase he happened across in some translated text must have the implications he draws from it, as persistently as the Dustin Hoffman character in Rain Man repeats the "Who's on first?' skit.

With him, you go round and round and round, and you never move an inch from where you started. It's as if no dialogue occurred at all.

E. Borgman said...

Thank you for writing about this issue. I never realized the extent of the hatred that some Protestants hold towards Catholicism until fairly recently when I started paying attention.

I'm frankly tired of of their stupid comments that the pope is the anti-Christ and that Catholics are idol worshipers and that the Church is a cult.

Their holding such demonic views towards the Church that Christ Himself started really makes me wonder whose side these Catholic haters are really on. It's very sad.

Dave Armstrong said...

Well, we need to pray for them, for sure. Many anti-Catholics are well-intentioned, but are held in the clutches of the absurd anti-Catholic outlook.