Sunday, May 6, 2007

Pascal's wager for Catholics

Dr. Francis Beckwith, professor at Baylor and just-resigned president of the Evangelical Theological Society, has announced that he is returning to the Roman Catholic Church (where he grew up).

There are people I dearly love who are Roman Catholic, and I certainly don’t want to offend them or anyone else, but I was saddened by this news. Frank Beckwith is a first-rate scholar, but even smart people can make bad decisions, and I think this is one.

After saying he believes both the Roman Catholic (RC) and protestant view of justification are both biblically defensible, he says, “I thought it wise for me to err on the side of the Church with historical and theological continuity with the first generations of Christians that followed Christ’s Apostles.”

I think he has chosen the wrong way to err.

The RC view of justification is essentially salvation by grace that is maintained by works. Those works are empowered by the Spirit and appointed by God, but in the end the human has a choice as to whether or not to participate, so the human is adding something to the cross to ensure his salvation. From the protestant perspective this is salvation by grace plus.

The protestant view is salvation by grace through faith alone. Any attempt to add personal merit to the equation is not only unneccesary, we believe it spoils the whole thing – that you either trust entirely in the work of Christ on the cross or you don’t. There is no in between.

These two views cannot coexist; one side is wrong. I am not going to get into the merits of each case. The question at hand is, to which side should you err? If you’re not as sure as is humanly possible, you have to decide which side offers the better approach.

If I may borrow from Pascal, let’s put it in terms of a wager. Which is the safest bet? If the RC view of justification is correct, a protestant who trusts in Jesus and lives a godly life will (under Vatican II) go to heaven. If the protestant view of justification is correct, a Catholic who faithfully obeys the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church will not.

Given this situation, the best bet to make is the protestant approach: trust in the death of Christ on the cross to pay for your sins, and love him with you whole life from there on out. If you’re wrong, you lose nothing.

(HT: Justin Taylor)


Anonymous said...

Praise God. We pray that more may hear the promptings of the Spirit and turn to Christ in the Church He founded.

Fr. David said...

It's not about what's safe. It's about what's true.

Truth, not safety, will set you free.

ChrisB said...

david bryan said: It's not about what's safe. It's about what's true.

Agreed. But Beckwith said he saw that both sides might be true, so he had to choose the better bet. I'm arguing that the protestant view is the better bet.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

If it is an epistemic tie between the papists and the Reformation view, then your logic seems to go through. So, you can defeat Frank on his own grounds.

However, it is no tie. Rome is wrong.

Doug Groothuis

opusaug said...


Though Catholic myself and a rather amateurish student of theology, I agree that your Pascal-based conclusion is very logical, and probably would be "the better bet". And I agree that David's suggestion does not undercut that argument in itself, because our respective faiths can cause each of us to perceive that we witness Truth more correctly. However, you said the following at the Right Reason post:

I encourage you to err to the side that is the most forgiving of mistakes.

Since Catholic theology allows that the Protestant may yet be saved - as you yourself admit - but the reverse is not at all true (as Douglas seems to stumble into), it would seem to me that you are arguing that the Catholic position is the one "more forgiving of mistakes".

As I understand justification by faith as practiced among our Protestant brethren, one must place your trust in the Lord without reservation in order to be saved. Thus, your allowance that you are "hedging your bets" either way by throwing your lot with the reformers doesn't really do you much good, because their theology doesn't allow for such a thing. By looking for a "safe bet" instead of firmly choosing to be Protestant, you effectively limit yourself to salvation by Catholic theology, and only "through the back door".

Put in the most crass terms, Pascal's wager has gone from "a sure thing" to (at best) a 2-to-1 longshot.

I propose that you look at your own thesis in slightly different terms. Ask yourself: between the side that requires me to be without error to be saved, or the side that allows me to be saved despite my human failings including my doubts, which is the more charitable and loving offer of salvation? If God is Love, as we know He must be from John, then that which expresses the more Perfect expression of Love is where Christ's Church must be.

opusaug said...

Btw, even though you said you did not want to debate the merits of the arguments, I'd also like to point out that we Catholics don't really believe what you describe as "grace plus". We believe as you do that justification is by grace through faith (though differences in our theological language can easily lead you to misunderstand our logic).

Since this is the basis of your whole argument, please pray for us Catholics that the difficult way we tend to discuss these topics might one day become more easily understandable, so that we no longer cause scandal by our choice of words.

ChrisB said...


By "more forgiving of mistakes," I meant mostly likely to get you to heaven. I also might disagree that the RC church is more forgiving, but that's not the question here.

I'm afraid my "wager" is open to the same misunderstanding as the original. I'm not saying try it out and see what happens. I'm saying that as you consider both positions and find some merit in each, you have to choose which one to finally follow with your whole heart. Beckwith let tradition tip the scale. I'm suggesting it should be the two views of justification.

But please don't misunderstand the protestant position on faith. We do not teach (as a group, there are outliers in every bunch) that you're allowed no doubt. What you're not allowed is self-reliance in even the smallest smidge.

I know that our two groups have historically disagreed not only on the issues but on what each other claim is the issue. That's unfortunate but not going to be resolved here. So let me just try to say that our position is very loving and forgiving -- by our understanding, there is no way a believer can end up anywhere but heaven upon death (even if that is worked out differently by various groups), and I don't think you can say the same for the RC position.

opusaug said...

We do not teach (as a group, there are outliers in every bunch) that you're allowed no doubt.

Good to know, I've learned something - primarily that the main source of my knowledge in this area for the last 30 years is one of your "outliers".

I know that our two groups have historically disagreed not only on the issues but on what each other claim is the issue. That's unfortunate but not going to be resolved here.

Agreed, so I won't belabor those additional points of misunderstanding I detect in the rest of what you wrote. :-)

Peace be with you and yours.

Anonymous said...

While it is a beautiful piece of logic, this argument is based on a misunderstanding of the Roman Catholic teachings on justication.

Catholics indeed believe in justification by Grace, but to say that the Grace is "maintained by works," is wholly incorrect.

Catholics believe that initial justification occurs through Sanctifying Grace received at Baptism (a Baptism which Catholics receive only once). This Grace comes from Jesus' cross. It purifies a person's soul, making him actually righteous (i.e. purified with sin removed), not just legally righteous (i.e. declared acceptable). Subsequently sinning erodes that purity, and the soul remains unpure until that person reconciles with God. At that point, his soul is purified again. Reconciling with God occurs through the Sacrament of Reconciliation (i.e. asking God's forgiveness) and not through good works.

So then, what is the purpose of good works, if not to save us or contribute to our salvation? Good works (deeds) complete faith; without works, a person has no real faith. The Catholic Church teaches that God will give us rewards (merits) in heaven, just as he has promised throughout the New Testament to do, for living a life of service, which he has commanded us to do. Example: Mt 19: 16-30. However, heavenly treasures are only given for works done out of the desire to serve God. As Jesus said, a person who prays for recognition has already received his reward (Mt 6:5-8).

The Catholic doctrine of Merit can be confusing, even for Catholics.

A good write up on James chapter 2 (justified not by faith alone):

If anyone remains unconvinced that Catholics do not believe that they can earn or contribute to their own salvation, I'd encourage him/her to pray, then read the above sources again with an open mind that seeks understanding.