Book Reviews,  Christianity

Beckwith’s Book and the ETS Amendment

Francis Beckwith’s new book Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic has just been released. The new book traces his journey back to Roman Catholicism, and the last chapter deals directly with his membership in the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). Beckwith was the President of the ETS when he decided to return to the Roman Catholic Church. Beckwith said then and he contends now that he can still sign the ETS’s doctrinal statement in good conscience. He writes,

“On May 5, 2007, I resigned as president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) and two days later I resigned my membership, one I held for over twenty years. . . I did not believe that the ETS doctrinal statement was inconsistent with my Catholic beliefs. . . I still believe the ETS doctrinal statement is broad enough to allow Catholic members” (pp. 118-19).

In other words, Beckwith feels that he can sign the statement in good conscience. He resigned simply because he wanted to avoid a rancorous dispute over this point. Beckwith also comments on our proposal to amend the doctrinal basis of the ETS. He writes,

“Soon after my resignations, two members proposed extensive changes to the organization’s doctrinal statement. These changes, if passed, would leave no doubt that ETS excludes all non-Protestants from membership” (p. 118).

Beckwith’s account underscores the reason that the ETS needs to clarify its doctrinal position. The current doctrinal statement consists merely of an affirmation of inerrancy and an affirmation of the Trinity. Both of those points are important, but they are insufficient by themselves to outline what we mean by “evangelical.” That is why we need to amend the doctrinal basis. We can never prevent people from signing our statement in bad faith. No doctrinal statement can keep someone from doing that. But by expanding our statement, we would be doing a service to those who wish to sign in good faith. They would know whether or not they share the Society’s definition of what it means to be an evangelical (however broad that might be).

The ETS will vote this week on our proposal to amend the ETS’s doctrinal basis, and you can read more about this effort in my previous post. In the meantime, I will post updates from ETS once the meetings commence on Tuesday in Rhode Island.


  • Don Johnson

    A group can decide whatever requirements it wishes for its members.

    The question is whether doing this for the ETS is what God would want.

    It depends on what people want the word “Evangelical” to mean for them. If it means Evangelical Protestant then it excludes non-protestants. Is it meant to exclude liberals and fundamentalists and be in the middle?

    Whatever lines are drawn, one should realize that there will still be differences inside the group.

  • jeff miller

    In agreement with your comments I would ask if societies and institutions such as the ETS, defined as they are…I would ask if they do not necesarily function in a different spirit than the cause of Christ as manifest in our local, real, congregations.

  • Ken Abbott

    If “evangelical” could regain its Reformation-era meaning and not be a rubber term that stretches to fit whatever model is desired, then the cause of Christ would be well-served, and not just in our local congregations.

  • Bryan McWhite

    Funny. I think that this underscores exactly why the ETS Statement should not be altered, and is among the reasons I will be voting against your proposal.

    Unless someone comes up with a broadly accepted definition for “evangelical,” I don’t think there is cause to narrow the ETS SoF to include only protestants.

    It has always seemed strange to me that the Evangelical Theological Society does not define in its SoF what the euangelion is, but your proposed statement of faith doesn’t seem to do this either. You have bits and pieces, but there is certainly no mention of the Kingdom, for example, which is a glaring omission in light of Jesus’ preaching.

  • Ranger

    Here’s Beckwith’s argument for how he can be both Catholic and Evangelical. I’m not convinced by his argument about the canon, and that’s why I think there should at least be some form of amendment:

    The question is whether this is the best amendment. A problem is that there is no consistent definition of an evangelical. The proposed amendment is representative of my personal views, but might be taken to exclude certain Arminians (if it needs a separate paragraph to explain why it does not exclude certain Arminians, then it’s probably unnecessary for a broad definition of evangelical) and those not holding to views of the atonement other than Penal Substitutionary (which seems to be a growing group in the ETS).

  • Francis Beckwith


    I agree that the canon part of my case is the weakest, though in the book version of the it I give more practical argument as to why the canon question should be ignored because of the importance of scholarly enhancement, etc.


  • Russ Ware

    My concern is that there is a trajectory suggested by these amendment pushes. The ETS can define itself however it wishes, of course.

    The question is whether the attitudes and philosophies driving the definition are profitable for the cause of Christ and the building of his kingdom… or in line with his will.

    This goes to the purpose of the ETS.

    The concept of what it means to be Evangelical could be a wonderful tool in these days when there are wonderful things going on in the Catholic Church in terms of evangelism, renewed emphasis on Bible study and having a personal relationship with Christ. Likewise, in Protestantism a tremendous interest in understanding Church history, exploring valuable practices and understandings wrongly jettisoned, and reclaiming the historical continuity of our faith.

    The concept of “Evangelicalism” could become a tremendous unifier in these remarkable days.

    But, not if it goes in the direction suggest by the likes of Denny Burk. I’m sorry Denny, I try to be as charitable as I can when I comment, but I am truly frustrated and saddened by your myopia.

  • John Michael LaRue

    The word “evangelical” is meant to be a distinction-making word. Much like the word “Christian” in times past. The reason for the combinatino of the two -> “evangelical Christian” is because the word “Christian” lost its distinctiveness.

    If under the current definition, there is no distinction between protestants and catholics, then I feel as if this word “evangelical” is going the same path as the word “Christian.”

    Maybe its just time to invent a new distinctive word to represent theologically conservative protestants. I mean, that seems to be the distinctions that this ammendment is attempting to make.

  • Russ Ware


    We already have terms for those distinctives, they are:

    Protestant Christians

    Catholic Christians

    I don’t think anyone here is suggesting that we shouldn’t recognize the difference(s).

    The question is whether the ideals of what it means to be Evangelical are reserved for Protestant Christians only.

    The trajectory of the suggested amendment, if allowed to characterize the definition of what it means to be Evangelical in general, would destine the concept of Evangelicalism to historical and ecclesiastical irrelevance.

    Instead, I suggest a ‘New Evangelicalism’ that celebrates the distinctives of Catholic (historic), Protestant (modern) and other orthodox (and Orthodox) forms of our faith under the distinctive umbrella of an Evangelicalism characterized by gospel zeal and a commitment to the truth of scripture and the historic faith.

    Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!

  • John Michael LaRue

    You certainly are suggesting a ‘new’ evangelicalism.

    The reason being is that this radically redefines the word away from its original intent.

    Though the term has reached back in to the 1700’s, the predominant use of the term evangelicalism was developed to distinguish the theologically conservative protestant group advocating cultural seperation known as fundamentalism and the theological conservative protestant group advocating direct cultural engagement.

    Denny’s proposal is not the one attempting to redefine the historical use of the term. Denny’s proposal is attempting to relink the term with its history as being a distinguishing mark among theologically conservative protestants advocating engagement with the culture. It is the ‘New Evangelicalism’ movement that is the one attempting to redefine the word in an ecumenical way.

  • John Michael LaRue

    The issue is that protestants and catholics don’t have the same gospel, thus they don’t have the same ‘gospel zeal’.

  • Russ Ware


    To your first point (#12). The history of Evangelicalism is nuanced and multifaceted and must be contextualized. But I’ll grant your point. That’s why I used the term “New Evangelicalism” in the first place. I am acknowledging such. My argument is that we should have the courage and purity of heart and passion to be more concerned about what God wants to do (and is doing) in the Church in our current context over and against any ‘original intent’ argument regarding Evangelicalism. If self-proclaimed keepers of the Evangelical flame disagree and move against the working of the Spirit in these days (in my opinion), then so be it. ‘Evangelicalism’ will loose its relevance in the new millennium. That’s all I’m saying.

    As to your second point (#13). I was able to glean from your earlier post that you held such a view. I’m sure you can glean from mine that I do not agree. 🙂

  • Russ Ware


    I had the pleasure of attending the 2007 Wheaton Theology Conference: Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future.

    The papers from this conference have been published in book form.

    Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future
    by Mark Husbands (Editor), Jeffrey P. Greenman (Editor)

    I would highly recommend the book.

    Denny… you too. Please read this book!

    The only ‘dog’ of the whole conference was Tony Jones’s contribution from the perspective of the ’emergent church.’ But his paper was wisely and rightly rejected for publication in the book, weeks of sophomoric whining from Tony in the weeks following that decision not withstanding. 😉

  • Mason Beecroft

    The term “evangelical” actually originates with the Lutherans. I would argue that it has been devalued in its North American context to refer to the pietistic descendants of Finney, Moody, Sunday, Graham, etc.

    The first evangelicals were liturgical, sacramental, catholic, and orthodox Lutherans. They believed they had inherited the best of Western Christendom, which guaranteed the proclamation and the preservation of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world. Now the term means none of these things. I like the term, but only when qualified by words such as catholic. Unfortunately, many of our own parishes are trying to ape the current evangelicals for various and sundry reasons. Kyrie Eleison.

  • Russ Ware

    Lord have mercy, indeed.

    Our wonderful little LCMS Lutheran parish has a recent history of this unfortunate bent. But there is also a burgeoning sense of liturgical renewal in our parish, which is exciting.

    At any rate, thanks for the insight, Mason. My good friend Barry Jones from DTS suggested the same thing to me recently regarding Luther’s original usage of the term ‘evangelical.’

  • jeff miller

    Is it ok to want to be more “evangelical” than any of the debaters at the ETS conference? Is it ok to want to be more
    “evnagelical” than Martin Luther himself? Is it ok to want to be more “evangelical” than what I am presently? Does “evangelical” mean to be in line with the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

  • Mason Beecroft

    I would argue that your wants and desires to be “more than” actually confuse the evangel. Evangelical is about Christ and His work, not our desires for progress and piety. Such subjectivism is burdensome and futile, although quite modern. We cannot progress. We need help from Someone outside of us. The evangel is Jesus’ work of salvation for disordered sinners. He accomplished this by the power of His death and resurrection and now delivers His forgiveness, life, and salvation to sinners through the work of the Holy Spirit in the Word (oral and sacramental, of course) of His Gospel. The evangelical understands their constant and deep need for Christ so they live in repentance and faith. An evangelical submits to Christ and His Gospel. We do not go beyond it. How could we? IMO, this is the problem with modern evangelicalism in its various expressions. It views the Gospel as a one-time event that then devolves to a principle-driven biblical therapeutic, behavior modification, effervescent ritual, and a better way of morality. The Gospel itself isn’t really necessary for any of those things. We are able to manipulate them quite well ourselves.

  • Russ Ware


    The ETS is a man-made institution, Luther was just a man, ‘evangelical’ is just a word, and as far as ‘Evangelicalism,… perhaps we could best say that Evangelicalism is as Evangelicalism does.

    Based on that maxim, and what Evangelicalism has come to mean in our contemporary context, James Dobson is “more evangelical” than Luther. If Evangelicalism were able to be defined more along the lines of the ETS amendment proposed here then Denny Burk might be said to be “more evangelical” then Luther.

    So what?

    Our concern should be whether the moniker has any usefulness in terms of our mission of being salt and light to a lost and dying world, building the kingdom of God and strengthening the Church.

    I think we actually agree on this!

    I’m simply arguing the value of a more generous, historical orthodoxy married to gospel zeal in defining Evangelicalism as the best was for the term to retain (or regain) its usefulness and relevance.

    At the end of the day, if “Evangelicalism is as Evangelicalism does,” it won’t matter how the ETS defines its doctrinal statement in terms of what it really means to be evangelical.

    I’m just trying to do my part to help the ETS not amend itself to irrelevance. 😉

    After all, don’t the Reformed Baptists already have club? 🙂

  • John Holmberg

    So what’s the word on this thing? Did it pass or not? It’s been two days after the proposed amendment now and Denny hasn’t said anything. Maybe that means it didn’t pass, thank goodness. Where’s the update?

  • John Holmberg


    If I were a member, I wouldn’t have a problem with them amending the doctrinal statement, it’s just the present amendment was entirely too much and, IMO, was just too reformed/anti-NP. So basically, not a bad idea to amend the statement, just a bad choice of what to include. If I had to guess, I’d say that was probably the complaint from most of the members as well. You can’t try to make it an all reformed, southern baptist, or anti-NP group; that’s just too narrow and true evangelicalism accepts those who are none of the above.

    On another note, Denny, it doesn’t surprise me that you would want to do this. Your narrow view of what an evangelical is is truly disturbing. You believe all evangelicals should be just like you in their doctrine and politics. While there are some unifying doctrines that make evangelicals, the list is not broad, and the politics thing is just silly. If they’re not like you, then they’re just “evangelicals.” That’s sad.

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