An Egg-Head’s Epiphany: Norm Geisler’s Inaccurate Website Post

“So, while we are losing a few intellectual egg-heads out the top of evangelicalism to Rome,we are gaining tens of thousands of converts out the bottom from Catholicism. The trade-off highly favors evangelicalism.”

That is a quote from Norman L. Geisler, recently published on his website. Just this evening, a dear Protestant friend of mine (a shining light in the prolife movement) brought Norm’s post to my attention. Entitled, “Why Roman Catholics are Leaving the Church in Mass,” Norm alludes to my own return to the Catholic Church in this passage:

Why do a few intellectual evangelicals become Catholics? Many reasons are given. It is an older, deeper, richer, more intellectual tradition. Or, to summarize one recent convert, “My family is Catholic. They wanted me to return, and the Bible says we should honor our parents!” It is clear that none of these are a test for the truth of a religion, and by the same logic one could argue for becoming a Hindu, Buddhist, or even an atheist.

How do I know he is referring to me? He offers the same “reasoning” about my reversion in a co-authored 2008 book (pp. 193-194) that he recommends in his post. But Norm’s depiction of my reversion–both in the book and on his website essay–is false. In fact, soon after his book was released, I sent an email message to the wonderfully gracious Justin Taylor (of Crossway Books) in which I voiced my concern about Geisler’s misleading and uncharitable portrayal of my reversion. What follows is that email (dated December 3, 2008) almost in its entirety:

Dear Justin:

I have not read Norm Geisler’s new Crossway book, but I have paged through it online on amazon.com.  I was shocked to see that he opined about my conversion to Catholicism. Under a section called “The Appeal to Family Ties,” he (and his co-author) claim that the reason for my conversion was honoring my father and mother, as if that were the only and exclusive reason for my conversion (p. 193). I don’t know who worked with Geisler on this book, but I would have expected an editor at Crossway to have checked out this claim, since I had [done] numerous print and media interviews since my conversion that could have easily shown Geisler’s claim to be misleading at best and false at worst. In fact, my initial blog post on my return to the Church… does not include the “honor my father and mother” reason.

In fact, if I’m not mistaken, it [was only once in the media that I] mentioned…“honoring my father and mother,” but it was in the context of having already accepted a sizeable chunk of Catholic theology as a legitimate option for Christian believers. I’ve repeated that claim several times in several lectures since then, but always as part of the puzzle in my journey and certainly not as decisive or definitive. In fact, in Return to Rome I place it in the context in which I have placed it in my talks (pp. 114-115):

After all that I had read and studied, this is what I concluded by mid-March 2007. It is his Apostles from which Jesus began his Church. From its infancy in the book of Acts, it was the Church that first testified to the Lordship of Christ and called people to follow him, which meant that one could, through repentance and baptism, become assimilated into that Body. Its earliest members produced the 27 books we call the New Testament. Those books were promulgated and gradually recognized as scripture while the Church’s theology and liturgy began to develop. In fact, many of these books, including some that did not make the final New Testament canon that was fixed at the end of the 4th century, were an integral part of Christian worship that included their public recitation. And it was in those local churches that the practices of confession and penance, belief in and celebration of the Real Presence of the Eucharist, prayer for and to the dead, and the idea of an ordained priesthood under the leadership of bishops, the Apostles’ successors, took root, flourished, and developed throughout the Christian world. Thus, by mid-March 2007, I had come to accept the reasonableness of the Catholic understanding of ecclesiology and doctrine: that the Christian Church’s theology and practices developed alongside, and in symbiotic relationship with, the production, formation, and selection of the New Testament canon. The conclusion appeared clear. Unless I capriciously cherry-picked the Catholic tradition, I could not justifiably accept the Early Church’s recognition and fixation of the canon of Scripture—and its correct determination and promulgation of the central doctrines of God and Christ (at Nicea and Chalcedon)—while rejecting the Church’s sacramental life as well as its findings about its own apostolic nature and authority. I was boxed into a corner, with the only exit being a door to a confessional.

At this point, I thought, if I reject the Catholic Church, there is good reason for me to believe I am rejecting the Church that Christ himself established. That’s not a risk I was willing to take. (My wife did not need as much convincing. She had arrived at this destination some time earlier.) After all, if I return to the Church and participate in the Sacraments, I lose nothing, since I would still be a follower of Jesus and believe everything that the Catholic creeds teach, as I have always believed. But if the Church is right about itself and the Sacraments, I acquire graces I would have not otherwise received. Moreover, my parents had baptized me a Catholic, and made sure I was confirmed while I was in the 7th grade. For the first time, the commandment—“Honor thy father and mother”—carried with it an authority I had never entertained. It occurred to me that the burden was on me, and not on the Catholic Church, to show why I should remain in schism with the Church in which my parents’ baptized me, even as I could think of no incorrigible reason to remain in schism. So, on March 23, 2007, my wife and I met with a local priest, Fr. Timothy Vavarerk, and told him of our intent to seek full communion with the Church.

So, Geisler is simply wrong in saying that “family influence” is what swayed me to Catholicism. What swayed me were a cluster of arguments and beliefs that pushed me to a point at which I could see the Catholic practices as at least legitimate Christian options. Once that massive hurdle was cleared, the “honor thy father and mother” consideration kicked in since I had concluded earlier that my Catholic baptism was a true Christian baptism.

I certainly do not expect Protestants to agree with my return to the Church, and I have no doubt that some will critique the reasons I offer in Return to Rome. I understand and appreciate that, and I have great respect for the depth of learning and devotion to Christ they bring to bear on these important questions that still divide us. But I will not tolerate published distortions of my personal journey and private spirituality so that someone who knows better can score a petty apologist’s point. Remember, this is my personal story, one that my wife and I have actually lived through….

On December 4, 2008, Justin replied: “Dear Frank, Thanks for your note about this. May we forward this to Norm Geisler? Justin.” My answer: “Absolutely.” I have no doubt that Justin brought my note to Norm’s attention. For Justin is a good Christian man.

I have great affection for Norm Geisler—having co-authored with William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland a festschrift in his honor. So, as you can imagine, I find it deeply sad that he is willing to knowingly perpetuate error about the spiritual journey of a long-time friend and colleague in a venue that he describes as “ministry.”

Perhaps it is time for Norm to take the theological advice of his favorite philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas, who, in his lectures on Romans, writes: “Hence, the act of faith will be perfect, if the will is perfected by the habit of charity and the intellect by the habit of faith, but not if the habit of charity is lacking.”

  • peterseanbradley

    “So, while we are losing a few intellectual egg-heads out the top of evangelicalism to Rome, we are gaining tens of thousands of converts out the bottom from Catholicism. The trade-off highly favors evangelicalism. So, invite a Catholic to your Bible study or church. There is a good possibility that they will get saved!”

    That has to be one of the weakest apologetics argument ever made, i.e., make sure that you invite one of the dumb ones; the smart ones are to smart to get saved.

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  • franklincatholic

    Dr. Geisler is right on point – the Church doesn’t do a good job of teaching them the Bible. If we did, there wouldn’t be so many Catholics leaving.

    Otherwise, Dr. Geisler’s article is shockingly disappointing. Calling Thomas Aquinas a “pre-Protestant” is like calling a Augustine a “pre-Calvinist”, an equivalence that can only be justified by carefully picking and choosing citations. I’m not too shocked he’d do that, since that’s how Protestants tend to read the bible as well.

    The truth is, Dr. Geisler’s beloved Aquinas was simply a good Catholic, and that’s the rub. If Catholics were actually taught from works like the Summa, they wouldn’t be leaving in such large numbers. It’s not fun to watch them trickle out, and it’s even more of a shame to watch them cut themselves off from the sacraments given to us by Christ Himself.

    Other than that, Dr. Geisler creates a straw-man that he calls the Catholic Church. What’ new?

    Finally, Dr. Beckwith, I’ll just say this for you: Matt. 5:11!

  • http://www.francisbeckwith.com Francis J. Beckwith

    You’re very kind, Franklin. Thank you.

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  • rudyrentzel

    Geisler cites the Pew Forum Report. “Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation,” without actually providing a citation. http://pewforum.org/Faith-in-Flux.aspx
    From my brief survey of that lengthy report, his numbers are largely accura…te, though the way he states them is not charitable (maybe he is getting grumpier in his older age).
    I didn’t get the sense from the article that the reference is to Dr. Beckwith, though it is possible. The clip from the book is certainly a reference to Dr. Beckwith, but the clip doesn’t say that was Dr. Beckwith’s only reason for conversion. In fact, the start of the clip talks about evangelicals whose families have been a powerful factor, not the only factor. The next sentence is ambiguous. “Cited this reason for his re-conversion,” could mean a reason, or it could mean the reason. Geisler should have been more careful.
    The statement about losing a few intellectual egg-heads was certainly not charitable nor civil. Francis, I can understand why overall you took offense. I hope and pray Dr. Geisler, whom I have respected for a long time, will set the record straight.

  • paulrodden

    Geistler says, “It is clear that none of these are a test for the truth of a religion, and by the same logic one could argue for becoming a Hindu, Buddhist, or even an atheist.”

    Is this because of a Protestant emphasis of Epistemology over Being? That Catholicism’s ‘depth’ comes from it’s rich metaphysics, not its power to excite the mind?

  • 1410556630

    I read Dr. Geisler’s post; it saddens me. He’s not the man that
    I thought he was.

    I’m looking at the back cover of his book:
    “Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences”,
    and wondering how many of the well known Catholics that
    endorsed it as being fair would want to have their name on it now.

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  • 531915506

    I dunno…as a Catholic revert with eerie parallels to you, Dr. Beckwith…I am somewhat saddened by “Bible notching” numbers in either direction.

    As one who spent 18 years in total Catholic immersion/schooling; 35 years in Evangelical Protestantism and now a Catholic revert of 2 years I feel somewhat bi-lingual and amphibious between these 2 worlds, as I suspect you do, too. I can understand the language, assumptions, arguments and conclusions of both Catholic and Reformation-inspired thinkers.

    Isn’t the point– as Jesus told us to– “make disciples?”

    If we, as Catholics fail to inspire and properly catechize our own, and these souls ‘find Jesus’ I frankly want to cheer their discovery of their living covenant with God, not quibble over the meaning ofMass/ Sacraments/Mary/priesthood, etc.

    If Protestants who long for a deeper connection to their historical roots find the gifts of the Catholic faith, I don’t want to point out their previous failures within Dispensationalism, or Holiness Theology for example. I want to journey with them into a beauty of worship and tradition, centuries-old, that is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.

    We are on the same team in a lost, hurting world that is losing the battle in many ways against a culture hell-bent on personal fullfillment aka the ages old sin of ‘pride’ and ‘doing what everyman thinks is right in his own eyes’.

    It is my hunger and prayer that Catholics AND our Evangelical brethren recognize our call to preach the Gospel and proclaim the name of Jesus in our authentic living as Christians.

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