Drowning in the Tiber: A Response to Evangelical Exodus

posted by Dr. Thomas Howe

Introduction

Douglas Beaumont has edited a book that seeks to chronicle the experiences of many Evangelicals who have left Evangelicalism and joined the Catholic Church. The book is principally the personal testimony of an individual’s move from one to the other. Since Beaumont is the editor and first contributor to the book, this essay will be a response to his arguments.

 

Diving In? A Belly Flop!

Beaumont says in several places that many of the fundamental doctrines were hotly debated among Evangelicals. For example, he says,

As to settling orthodoxy, the “logical” and “hermeneutical” methods I had been taught simply failed. How could we Evangelicals claim to have unity if we disagreed on so much (even when we supposedly used the same methods)? Morals and theology (even the Protestant überessential doctrine of salvation by faith alone) were hotly debated among Evangelicals, who all claimed the Bible as their source. There were so many in-house disagreements that it was practically impossible even to define Evangelicalism. My long-held assumptions were being challenged not only by skeptics such as Bart Ehrman and Sam Harris but by Evangelical scholars such as D. H. Williams, Craig Allert, Mark Noll, and Os Guinness. (Douglas Beaumont, “Tiber Treading No More,” in Evangelical Exodus (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2016), 22–23; emphasis in original.)

 

It seems that Beaumont dived in without first being trained how to swim. Besides the fact that there are no Evangelicals who dispute the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, somehow notwithstanding Beaumont’s lament that there are hot debates and disagreements among Evangelicals, he has no problem accepting his own characterization as if it were beyond question. His own statement, that these debates make it “practically impossible even to define Evangelicalism,” somehow is taken as absolute and true and not subject to debate. In other words, there is a serious self-referential problem between his characterization of debates among Evangelicals and his own matter-of-fact statement that Evangelicals “disagreed on so much.” Are not his characterizations also subject to debate? Why should anyone take his observations as if they were written on tablets of stone? It seems that Beaumont accepts some topics as hotly debated when they do not agree with his perspective and conveniently ignores the fact of hot debates concerning topics that agree with his point of view. In another example he says,

 

The more I learned about the great thinkers of the past, the more I saw that what I was being taught at SES simply did not match up. For example, I discovered that what Geisler taught about Thomas Aquinas (his philosophical hero) concerning God’s sovereignty was not only incorrect, but was used by Aquinas as an example of an error when he explained his own view. Likewise, his explanation of Aquinas’ view on God’s impassibility was clearly not what Aquinas believed. I found this rather upsetting because while Geisler was certainly free to believe whatever he wished, if he misunderstood the early Church Fathers and his favorite theologian, I was not sure how trustworthy his other positions were. (Ibid., 30)

 

But on what basis did Beaumont conclude that what Geisler taught was not what St. Thomas taught? Isn’t what Aquinas taught about impassibility as hotly debated as any other issue? Why does Beaumont simply accept what he thinks Aquinas taught as if this issue is not also a debated topic? Beaumont conveniently passes over the debate about what Aquinas taught and states his own conclusion that Geisler was not teaching what Aquinas taught as if this were simply a matter of reading Aquinas. Additionally, on what basis does Beaumont say that God’s impassibility was “clearly not what Aquinas believed”? Why is the issue “clear” to him and yet not so clear to others who have done more research in the writings of Aquinas?

Beaumont uses the same tactic with reference to the Nicene Creed:

I had (sic) with a colleague at SES. I was assured that the Nicene Creed could be affirmed by Baptists because when it says, “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins,” that means spirit baptism, and when it says, “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” that means there was one universal, invisible church that taught what the apostles taught. This did not sound right, and a quick glance through the writings of Nicene-era theologians confirmed that these things were certainly not what was meant. Again, SES’ professors were free to teach whatever they believed to be true, but it seemed that the actual teachings of the ancient Church were being misrepresented. (Ibid., 31; emphasis in original)

 

How does Beaumont arrive at the conclusion that what SES was teaching was not what the “writings of Nicene-era theologians . . . mean”? Are not the meanings of the statements of the Nicene-era theologians hotly debated? Without citing any sources and ignoring any debates about the meanings of the Nicene-era theologians, Beaumont simply declares that what SES teaches is not what the Nicene-era theologians meant. Has he some gift that makes his own readings the correct ones while the readings of a multitude of better qualified scholars is not? Actually, what he is not saying is that what the SES professors were teaching about the Nicene-era theologians did not match up with his own view about what the theologians taught. But, why should anyone accept Beaumont’s conclusion rather than any number of other interpretations of the Nicene-era theologians? Yet he makes these declarations as if there is no debate about his own interpretations. Why should anyone think that what SES teaches is not what Beaumont thinks these theologians meant? Perhaps the disparity to which Beaumont refers is in fact a disparity between what the Nicene-era theologians meant and what Beaumont thinks they meant. This kind of maneuver is disingenuous. Perhaps the reader should see that it is Beaumont who does not have the hermeneutical chops to understand the meanings of the writings of the Nicene-era theologians. Perhaps the beliefs of many others who came through SES and of many past and present scholars is the correct reading, and it is Beaumont’s lack of a capacity to learn the basic critical skills that would have brought him through his own personal crisis.

 

Beaumont conveniently neglects to report how he came to his own understanding of the meanings of the writings of the Nicene-era theologians and simply implies that he is the one who understands the meaning of these theologians, and it is the professors of SES who don’t. The writings of the Nicene-era theologians were primarily written in Latin. Does Beaumont read Latin? In a footnote Beaumont does refer to books by Thomas C. Oden, Ancient Doctrine, and We Believe in One Holy and Apostolic Church. However, Beaumont makes no effort to explain why he indicates that Oden’s books simply present the truth. Why should anyone accept Oden’s interpretations over other authors about ancient doctrines? Of course as a United Methodist theologian, Oden has his own perspective that must be accounted for. Also, are not the interpretations of the writings of ancient theologians debated? Are there no other authors who have interpretations that conflict with Oden’s?

Another quote reveals more about Beaumont than about the Evangelicals he is supposedly analyzing:

Finally, it seemed to me that the cultural problems evident in Evangelicalism were not accidental but rather a natural outcome of how it operated. I knew many Evangelicals who were upset with what various Evangelical churches, ministries, and leaders were doing, but they lacked principled, authoritative responses. In a movement in which everyone could do what was right in his own eyes, how could anyone complain in an authoritative way? I eventually discovered that, to be successful in Evangelicalism, one simply had to be popular. With its leadership grounded in self-proclamation, and one’s authority based on the collective opinion of the masses, Evangelicals could attain success only by gaining and maintaining a fan base. As in the secular world, this often required either compromise (to keep fans) or controversy (to expel those who were not fans), and whatever fame resulted regularly engendered the same problems it did in the secular world. Lacking an objective, authoritative standard for leadership, narcissism became a virtual prerequisite—and despotism was often the norm. (Ibid., 32)

 

First of all, to claim that there was no “authoritative responses” by Evangelicals or that no one can complain “in an authoritative way” reveals Beaumont’s always-already present perspective about what is and what is not “authoritative.” In his investigations, he had already assumed that any authority would have to be something along the lines of the Magisterium. As an Evangelical, I believe that the text is the authority. Secondly, it is certainly true that there are many disagreements about what many texts mean, but this does not at all remove or disparage the convictions held by a multitude of qualified scholars that the text is authoritative. The questions of interpretation and meaning are the very reasons I saw the need to learn Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Syriac, and Latin. Thirdly, as far as the biblical languages are concerned, I learned that many disagreements among interpreters resulted from the fact that some authors just do not understand the nature of the biblical languages. Additionally, I saw the need to study philosophy, history of philosophy, and philosophy of language. Having been a professor at SES during the time that Beaumont was an instructor at SES, I knew that Beaumont did not have any facility in the biblical languages, nor did he have any training in the language of the church fathers, primarily Latin, nor did he have any understanding of the language of the Eastern church, which was principally Syriac.

 

            Considering the fact that he did not have the training nor understanding of the languages involved, his characterization of differences in interpretations by Evangelicals loses its apparent force. How did he know that the writings of the early church should be understood one way or another? He did not have the language training that would make his conclusions those of an independent scholar in the field. Since he did not have the necessary training to be able independently make authoritative responses, his laments about differences in interpretation begin to sound more like a rebellious teenager. He simply did not have the training to make such evaluations. His approach to these issues reminds me of a characterization in an old rock song: “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” Of course, this characterization might be true of anyone, yet Beaumont does not allow that his own interpretation may be incorrect.

 

In a footnote he claims, “I was later told by another SES administrator that SES’ doctrine was what the apostles taught!” (Ibid., 31, n16). Beaumont claims, “. . . that means there was one universal, invisible church that taught what the apostles taught” (Ibid., 31). To this claim Beaumont states, “This did not sound right . . .” (Ibid). Why did Beaumont summarily dismiss this administrator’s claim? Was not the administrator’s claim worthy of consideration? Beaumont states that a “quick glance through the writings of Nicene-era theologians confirmed that these things were certainly not what was meant” (Ibid).  Above we have already looked at some of Beaumont’s claims. However we have not considered the characterization of his “research” as “a quick glance.” Why would Beaumont trust his own “quick glance” above the conclusions of someone who had spent years studying the Nicene-era theologians? The reason is, Beaumont had already settled on a particular point of view, and it was this point of view that filtered out any claims with which he disagreed. Beaumont has either neglected to give account of his own perspective, or he has purposely refused to give his reader this information. It is not that these experiences began to build for him a particular world view. Rather, he had already accepted aspects of the world view, and this particular world view became his filter. Knowing Beaumont personally, I do not think that he would intentionally mislead his readers. However, even though he may not have done this intentionally does not mean that he has not misled his readers.

Beaumont charges Evangelicals with a blatant subjugation of truth to popularity:

Finally, it seemed to me that the cultural problems evident in Evangelicalism were not accidental but rather a natural outcome of how it operated. I knew many Evangelicals who were upset with what various Evangelical churches, ministries, and leaders were doing, but they lacked principled, authoritative responses. In a movement in which everyone could do what was right in his own eyes, how could anyone complain in an authoritative way? I eventually discovered that, to be successful in Evangelicalism, one simply had to be popular. With its leadership grounded in self-proclamation, and one’s authority based on the collective opinion of the masses, Evangelicals could attain success only by gaining and maintaining a fan base. As in the secular world, this often required either compromise (to keep fans) or controversy (to expel those who were not fans), and whatever fame resulted regularly engendered the same problems it did in the secular world. Lacking an objective, authoritative standard for leadership, narcissism became a virtual prerequisite—and despotism was often the norm (Ibid., 32).

 

These characterizations are unfair and isolated. First, to say that the natural outcome of Evangelicalism was unprincipled and arbitrary may be true of some Evangelicals, but this is not a universal problem. Notice that Beaumont came to these universal judgments on the basis of “many Evangelicals” whom he knew. This is an embarrassingly small number on which to base these universal judgments. Secondly, to say that “everyone could do what was right in his own eyes” is a grossly inaccurate characterization of Evangelicalism. In fact, Beaumont is the one who was doing what was right in his own eyes. Thirdly, he asserts, “I eventually discovered that, to be successful in Evangelicalism, one simply had to be popular.” What was Beaumont’s definition of being “popular”?  As an Evangelical, I am not “popular” nor have I sought to be “popular” or to have “fans.” It is entirely disingenuous to characterize Evangelicalism by the imposition of his own definition of being successful. Fourthly, how does Beaumont know what constitutes an “objective, authoritative standard of leadership”? I have known many Evangelicals personally and many others through their writings. I have been an Evangelical for nearly 45 years, and I have yet to encounter an Evangelical who set “narcissism” above truth. Although it might be said of many TV preachers that they have compromised, even granting this possibility, it seems that Beaumont has set himself up as the moral standard and judge of the motivations and practices of all Evangelicals. Indeed, it seems that Beaumont has spoken ex cathedra as an infallible pope. Beaumont should have taken more seriously Paul’s charge, “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Rom. 14:4). It should also be recognized that Beaumont does not refer to a single Evangelical who meets these criteria.

Response to Evangelical Exodus Part 2: Drowning in the Wading Pool

Follow Why Do You Believe by E-mail

Subscribe to follow this blog and receive email notifications of new posts.