As everybody and his uncle in the blogosphere seems to have now heard, Prof. Frank Beckwith, my colleague at Right Reason, has returned to the Roman Catholic Church and has consequently resigned his position as president of the Evangelical Theological Society.
Though I am not Roman Catholic, I have the greatest respect for Frank and wish him all the best in service to the Lord Jesus Christ, whom we both worship and follow. This has to be an intensely difficult time for him, complicated by the whole ETS presidency issue, and I have not the slightest desire to add in any way to that pressure. This post, then, though occasioned by Frank's recent decisions, is intended to be a discussion of a conundrum that faces some evangelical organizations today.
On the one hand, I cannot help thinking that it would be a good thing if an organization like the ETS were open to Catholic membership. Apparently the sola fide aspect of its statement of faith was (said one of the organization's founders) intentionally written to exclude Catholics. I cannot but think that is a shame. Similarly, I would like to see a school like Biola University be willing to accept--and promote, and tenure--Eastern Orthodox professors. You could in that sense call me "ecumenical," though I dislike the term because of the ways in which it's been used. If I had my druthers I'd write up for Christian organizations and institutions a statement of faith that was rockin' and "in your face" on issues like the historical resurrection, the deity of Jesus Christ, and even the evils of postmodernism and cultural issues like abortion, but that deliberately included conservative Baptists, Catholics, and Orthodox who agreed on those issues that are to my mind more basic than those on which we disagree. In a flippant moment I have even come up with a humorous name for such an organization: Conservative Evangelical and Catholic Theological Society, with an acronym pronounced "sects."
But matters are not quite that simple. Consider, for example, the following quotation from the new president-elect of Biola, linked from the post on Biola:
"Evangelicals are not defined by a political party, by their views on when life begins or by their justification for the war in Iraq," says Barry H. Corey, academic dean and a professor of church history at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary outside Boston. "Evangelicals are Democrats, Republicans and independents; they are conservatives, liberals and moderates; Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians; members of churches large and small."
As I pointed out in the comments thread, this is not entirely good news for Biola. While it may resolve, and in a good direction, the problem of Biola's treatment of its Eastern Orthodox professors, let's face the question: Is this guy a liberal? Is he, as this quotation seems to indicate, positioning himself as positively welcoming pro-aborts into the evangelical camp? What direction is he going to take Biola?
The problem is this: Once you start loosening up the screws of an institution or organization, it's not always easy to make sure that you loosen only the ones you want to loosen. Ironically, while some Catholics imply that evangelicals have a serious problem with being disconnected from tradition, evangelical Protestants do have a theological and even a cultural tradition, and a long and important one, though one that (unfortunately) often has anti-Catholic propositions woven into its very warp and woof. Yet that very tradition has, I think we should not only admit but positively affirm, been an important part of the strength of Christianity in the United States during the past century. The evangelicals and fundamentalists have kept the flame of Christian orthodoxy burning when many a mainstream denomination not only let it die but poured water on it. And how easy is it going to be to retain the good aspects of that tradition--the emphasis on creedal orthodoxy and objective theological truth, the excellent record of raising children and young people to love and follow Jesus Christ as adults, even much wonderful music--while asking evangelicals to "lighten up" on sola scriptura and sola fide and send their kids to Christian college to be taught by Roman Catholics?
So the question is this: Is it sociologically possible to loosen up evangelical organizations and institutions (like colleges) so that they admit professors and members who hold to the Sacraments--e.g., Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans--without inadvertently weakening their resistance to what conservatives in all these camps would condemn as theological heresy and cultural liberalism? Is it worth trying? And what is the best approach to doing so?