Is Southern Evangelical Seminary (SES) a Catholic conversion factory? According to some it is. On February 3, 2022, James White, Jeff Johnson, and Owen Strachan made a video in which they castigated the natural theology of Thomas Aquinas and propagated the falsehood that SES holds Thomism in higher esteem than Scripture and is instrumental in the conversion of many of its students to Catholicism. They also continue to promote the false and already refuted notion that teaching Thomistic philosophy necessarily leads one to become Catholic. (For a refutation of such a notion see here, here, and here.) I was a student at SES from 2004 to 2013, triple majoring in the masters program and completing a Ph.D. there, so I think I can say with some certainty what SES teaches. (I am also a professor at SES.) I want to address the false notion that SES teaches Thomistic thinking in such a way that it leads students to Catholicism.
The Charge: That Thomistic Philosophy Has Led “a lot” of SES Students to Catholicism
Jeffrey Johnson boldly asserts that he wanted to “beat this dog out of the Church,” referring to Thomas Aquinas, and that his “theology proper is messed up.” Although he states “Aquinas is not hard to understand,” Ed Feser’s review of Johnson’s book on Aquinas shows that Johnson actually misunderstands Aquinas. (See Johnson’s response here and Feser’s rejoinder here.) White follows these assertions with his own, saying that there is a “dryness and aridness” in reading Aquinas (many have the exact opposite view, and such says nothing about the truth of Aquinas’ teaching). Part of the critique on Aquinas’ thought on divine simplicity, according to White, is that it is not based on a metaphysics that is presented in Scripture. Jeff echoes this critique, asking, “What does the Bible say?” (Without going into detail, I will simply point out that the Bible does not teach metaphysics in the philosophical sense, so White’s assertion and Johnson’s question are are quite bizarre and demonstrates their failure to distinguish general and special revelation in this arena.)
Owen adds that there are “paths already cut that take you out of reformed evangelicalism into the Catholic church” and that “Scott Oliphant has been very clear about this.” According to Owen, “Geisler subbed in Aquinas for theology proper and ethics to some degree, and a lot of students would start reading Aquinas at SES, and for various reasons heard this kind of siren song, and then came to believe” that sola scriptura “is naïve and fundamentalist” and left that behind them and embraced Catholicism. (It is not clear what “subbed in Aquinas for theology proper and ethics” means, other than the approach to both of these areas was Thomistic in nature, but neither were “substituted” for Thomism.) At this point White points out that they weren’t just students, but staff as well, people who were teaching. Owen then suggests that when one reads Evangelical Exodus, a book edited by Doug Beaumont that chronicles some of the Catholic converts from SES, there is a “gateway drug”: Thomas Aquinas. In short, White, Johnson, and Strachan are saying that SES has a path cut to Catholicism that “a lot of students” have taken because of the “gateway drug” of Thomas Aquinas. Is this true?
What is true about these assertions is that SES does hold to a Thomistic philosophical framework and that there have been students, at SES who have converted to Catholicism. However, the claim is greatly exaggerated. Owen said that “a lot” of students have done this. Given the number that Doug Beaumont has given and what SES is aware of, the number is around 30 students, maybe fewer. Given all of SES’s graduates over the years (more than 600) that comes out to 4.99%. And that is graduates, not just students. The percentage would be much lower if we included just students who didn’t ever graduate (which is in the thousands). I think it is reasonable to project at least a 5% rate for students at any given theological institution will reject the core tenets of that institution. Put another way, over 95% of SES’s graduates don’t become Catholic. For example, one can look at the backgrounds of Catholic converts here and here and see the number of formerly reformed brothers and sisters. What follows from this? Absolutely nothing because truth is not determined by majority vote.
Before I go any further, I want to clarify one thing. This article is not an indictment on any of those converts. I know most of the authors of Evangelical Exodus, and I know other converts who are not in the book. This is not meant to disparage them or anything of the sort.
The Reasons for Conversion
Are the reasons for these converts simply that they learned about the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas? The answer by their own admission is No! The best place to find out the reasons is from the converts themselves. Nine converts gave their reasons in Evangelical Exodus. I am not going to cover all 9 or go into great detail. My point is simply to show that while some did claim that studying Aquinas made them wonder about the rest of Catholic theology, it was not the simple study of Aquinas at SES that served as the main impetus for their conversion. None of the 9 people in the book say anything to that effect, nor am I aware of any Catholic converts from SES who converted simply because SES teaches Thomistic philosophy. In fact, one explicitly says that SES had no direct bearing on his conversion. There are, however, consistencies in their reasons for their conversions and in their stories.
One consistency is the canon. Several of the authors claim that for whatever reason, they came to believe that there had to be an authoritative body (the Church) to establish the canon. Protestantism, they say, cannot account for this. Another consistency they brought up was a rejection of sola scriptura. Tradition, they say, has an important role, not only in the canon, but in the Church as a whole. They write that studying church history (not simply philosophy) was a major factor in their conversion. They claim that Protestantism is not consistent with what they see in the Church, especially the early fathers. And then there were other theological factors for each of them. But what was clear in going through Evangelical Exodus was that they came to these conclusions in spite of what SES was teaching. They maintained that SES taught typical evangelical theology, and they came to reject that.
Doug Beaumont writes, “Much of SES’ doctrinal statement (to which students and faculty were held) contained a mix of Reformation theology, Anabaptist doctrines, and even late nineteenth-century beliefs.” (As I’m using a Kindle version of the book without page numbers, see their respective chapters for quotations.) He further adds, “It became clear that the theology I had been taught was very different from the majority position of the Church of history.” Doug explains that while studying Aquinas made him appreciate aspects of the Catholic Church, it was not the sole, or if I may, even main reason for his conversion. Doug’s conversion came about for many reasons, such as the issue of the canon and the role of church history. There are other reasons as well, but these are at least two of the main ones.
Joshua Betancourt, one of my best friends in seminary, explains: “I then began to wonder whether Saint Thomas’ views on Catholic doctrine could also be true. If he was so insightful when it came to natural theology, why couldn’t he be when it came to divine revelation and what the Church teaches regarding the sacraments?” Hence, his leaving Protestantism had a good bit to do with his own studies regarding Catholic doctrine in spite of what SES was actually teaching. Josh also explained that he had a close Catholic family member who discussed Catholicism with him—a factor in at least several of the converts. (I actually remember hearing about some of his discussions with that family member.)
Jeremiah Cowart states, “There was a friend who helped nudge me toward the Catholic Church . . . . I do not know whether I would have gotten there so quickly without his help.”
Brandon Dahm says his questioning of the Catholic faith started in high school: “One decisive moment for me was when I realized I had to give the Catholic question—“Is Catholicism true?”—careful consideration. It happened during my sophomore year of college” (emphasis added). He further declares, “And reading Norman Geisler, the cofounder of Southern Evangelical Seminary, had reinforced that Catholicism wasn’t an option. Although he affirmed that Catholics got a lot right, Geisler gave the impression that Catholicism was obviously wrong on the key disagreements between Catholics and Protestants” (emphasis added). He further writes, “Through Geisler, we became Thomists; that is, we took Aquinas as a philosophical guide. This meant that I had to respect Aquinas as a thinker, which required me at least to try to give his theology a fair hearing. The light coming in was not exclusively intellectual light, though; I also made my first Catholic friends as an undergrad.” And I think this is the most straightforward claim that SES was not a direct influence on his conversion: “Although I have talked about how my coursework related to some of these changes, I have said very little about how SES fits into this story. This is because it had very little to do with my conversion directly. Of course, the proclaimed ethos of defending the historical faith, taking opposing views seriously, and looking to Aquinas for answers pushed me to take the questions seriously, but SES was not a safe place to explore these questions” (emphasis added).
The conclusion of the book highlights that their conversions were not simply intellectual: “Although [intellectual reasons are] precisely what one would expect from a group of former seminarians, it is important to point out that other types of reasons—ancient tradition, beauty, family, and intellectual tradition—were operative and should be operative in a conversion.” Family was a clear factor in several of the people I know personally, some of them not part of the book. In short, there are a myriad of reasons people convert. For more on this point, see this article by the Davenant Institute.
White mentioned that two of the converts were staff (teachers). This is true. Doug Beaumont and Jason Reed were professors who converted to Catholicism. Reed was one of my teachers and I was a Ph.D. student with Beaumont. In fact, the class that seemed to have the most effect on Doug was my first Ph.D. class in the program. It wasn’t a philosophy class and had nothing to do with Thomism. It was a class on biblical criticism! It was in this class that Doug seemed to be most concerned with the issue of the canon.
Reed was a great professor. He was working on his Ph.D. at St. Louis University (a Catholic school) while he taught for SES. He had an enormous impact on my intellectual life, my studies, and eventually my teaching. Most of the students really liked Jason and his classes. He certainly made us better thinkers and philosophers.
It is important to point out that many, if not most, of the conversions happened around 2010-2013. A few conversions happened before 2010, a few after 2013, but it seems most happened in that roughly 3-year period during the tenure of the above two professors who were teaching then who would become converts in that same period (after their time at SES). While it is not the case that all the converts during this time were influenced by them, it is certainly the case that some were. My main point here is that SES students don’t convert to Catholicism all the time, which is the sense one gets by watching this video. To suggest otherwise is at best misleading and at worse deceitful.
Putting Things in Perspective
The above should highlight the fact that the assertion that SES has “a lot” of converts to Catholicism is misleading and overly simplistic. It appears to me that White, Johnson, Strachan, (and Oliphant from a few years ago), have not done their due diligence with this issue. What is true is that SES teaches the general philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Much of that philosophy is actually very similar to Aristotle. What is not true is that this mere teaching of Aquinas’ philosophy has served as a sufficient condition for most of the Catholic conversions.
This cannot even be the case in principle. White, et al., are not making clear distinctions between what can be known from reason (i.e., general revelation) and what requires special revelation (i.e., the Bible). Their presuppositionalism, of course, prevents them from believing human reason can naturally supply certain knowledge about things like the existence and nature of God.
The point is, yes, SES does teach Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy. Regarding Thomas, we teach his philosophy about what can be known about the physical world around us and what we can learn about God from the world. That is general revelation. While White et al. do not want to recognize such a distinction, it is a valid distinction that has been made biblically and in the early church.
What SES does not do is teach Thomistic thinking as it relates to special revelation: hamartiology (sin), soteriology (salvation), ecclesiology (the study of the Church), eschatology (end times), or even general hermeneutical principles. Therefore, the real problem is the inability to recognize a clear distinction between general and special revelation. Everything for White, Strachan, Johnson, and Oliphant seems to fall under special revelation (even if they at times use the phrase “general revelation”) since we must presuppose full-orbed Christianity to start with. If that is the case, then nothing counts as general revelation. But this seems to go against what even the Bible says, for example, in Romans 1:20: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”
As mentioned, I have taken (and taught) a lot of classes at SES, including the core theology classes, Bible classes, as well as the classes on hermeneutics (biblical interpretation). I know what SES teaches. I know many of the people who converted. I also know what Evangelical Exodus says, which makes clear that the writers appreciate SES and its emphasis on Thomas, which was not the decisive or definitive reason for their conversion.
Originally published here.