Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Unity At Whatever Cost?
It has been 486 years since Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on his church door in Wittenberg in 1517. That act was itself not extraordinary. It was an ordinary way of making public notices in those days. Had Luther done it in 2004, he would have created Ninety-five Theses.com! Back in those days, nails were more in use. What made that act of Luther so extraordinary was the content of his document. It was a defiance of popular beliefs and traditions of which Rome was the powerful patron. For a similar defiance a century earlier, the Bohemian John Huss was burned at the stake; Under God’s blessing, Luther’s defiance produced the Reformation.
While many see this event as an act of great division, it was not that primarily. Luther would not immediately renounce his Catholic faith. Even his ninety-five theses were still saddled with erroneous Catholic beliefs. More than an act of division, which came later, it was a call for Rome to repent and change. Even Catholic theologian Hans Kung admits that Rome responded wrongly to this call. (Hans Kung, The Catholic Church (2001); Phoenix Press).
Only when instead of repentance, Rome responded with an act of excommunication did the division transpire. Over the centuries, it was the most unbridgeable divide among branches of Christendom – between Evangelicals and Catholics.
Hitherto, the only way for Evangelicals and Catholics to be together was by setting aside the discussion of doctrinal issues. And given the loose doctrinal commitments of present day Evangelical culture, it was not difficult to find those who would cross the bridge. But also, it was not difficult for doctrinally loyal Evangelicals to see this as an act of compromise.
Fast forward to the 1990’s until the present. Charles Colson, an Evangelical leader of the Prison Fellowship Ministry, and Richard Newhaus, the editor of the Catholic journal First Things, started a movement that saw the joining together of respected leaders from both sides of their traditions. While not speaking officially for their respective communities, they achieved the publication of a series of three documents in which both Evangelical and Catholic leaders signed their names. The sponsors maintain that these documents differ from previous efforts at uniting in that they frankly discussed doctrines and their differences.
In 1994, the first of these publications came out like a bombshell. It carried the title Evangelicals and Catholics Together. It has become the banner of the movement initialled as ECT. The first document attempted to take a common stand on many pressing issues in which Evangelicals and Catholics were in agreement. Still this document went so far as to proclaim unity of the two communities in mission. It spawned a controversy.
After the first ECT document, two more followed which attempted to address the two principles of the Reformation. In 1997, the second document was released with the title The Gift of Salvation. It makes the claim that unity exists in the doctrine of salvation that these two communities espouse. In effect, it answers the so-called formal principle of the Reformation which is the issue of justification by faith alone. The third ECT document was published in 2002 entitled Your Word is Truth. It is the movement’s answer to the so-called material principle of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura.
Has the ECT truly discovered the formula for unity? Have the principles of the Reformation been found obsolete, and therefore, must be abandoned to get attuned to what is relevant in our time? These are pressing questions – and must be fairly answered.
RATIONALIZATION FOR UNITY.
What justifies the pressing for unity between two bodies that have stayed divided for almost half a millennium? Let me draw the reasons of the initiators of the movement, and then pay attention to one Evangelical signatory’s reasons – that of Dr. J.I. Packer.
Colson and Newhaus have worked together with exemplary zeal for the realization of this movement. From their published statements, the following rationalizations have guided them.
1.There are more pressing issues than the Evangelical-Catholic tension.
Richard Newhaus published The Naked Public Square in 1986. He analyzes a society that is without an answer. For his part, Charles Colson authored Kingdoms in Conflict in 1987 and later, The Body – Being Light in Darkness in 1992. Colson states, "The divisions between us are not the battle of the hour… The controversies that divide us are far less significant than the common threat that confronts us.
2.There are more that unites Evangelicals and Catholics than divides them
Evangelicals and Catholics hold in common the tenets of orthodox Christianity. We are fellow believers in the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, supernatural miracles. Certainly there are many more that Evangelicals share with Catholics than, say, with Protestant liberals. This leads the first document to conclude, "All who accept Christ as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ… He has chosen us to be His together."
3.The focus of efforts together must be on non-believers, not on each community
Again ECT 1 makes this appeal, "in view of the large number of non-Christians in the world and the enormous challenge of our common evangelistic task, it is neither theologically legitimate nor a prudent use of resources for one Christian community to proselytize among active adherents of another Christian community."
The signatory who probably drew the loudest gasp from the Evangelical community is Reformed stalwart, Dr. James Packer. To his credit, he faced up to the queries when he published an article in Christianity Today in its December 12, 1994 issue. It carried the title, "Why I Signed"
1. Because good Catholics and good evangelical Protestants are Christians together
2. Because the enemies: relativist, monist, pluralist, liberationist, feminist, etc. need to meet a united front
3. Because evangelicals and Catholics are already linked in ministry
The cause of unity carries a perennial appeal. But on matters that affect loyalty to truth – and indeed eternity – it must merit more than just a passing glance, but close scrutiny. To the foregoing justification of unity, let me offer the following critical comments
1. Orthodoxy is not yet the Christian gospel
Orthodoxy is identified with the great creeds of the Patristic age (Apostles’ Creed. Athanasian Creed, Nicene Creed, Chalcedonian). They settled basic issues such as the. Trinity and deity of Christ. The gospel, however, focuses on the issue of the saving significance of the Person and work of Jesus Christ. It is Paul’s defined irreducible minimum of Christian preaching – "Christ and him as crucified" (1 Cor 2:2). Clustered in this issue is not just the orthodox belief in the deity of Christ, but gospel faith in the all-sufficient Savior whose righteousness alone merits acceptance with God. This righteousness is imputed to those who trust in Him. And this trust is by the medium of the Word preached (l Cor 1:24). Indeed, we are called to salvation, as Paul puts it, "by our gospel" (2 Thess 2:14).
This has spelled the difference between the Evangelical believer and the Sacerdotal system of Rome which maintains a flawed system of merits. In this system, many things are put in-between Christ and the sinner, rather than the simple gospel. It is a system cut out for sacramentalism and supererogation of the saints’ mediation. The Roman Catholic Church may qualify as orthodox Christendom. Sadly, it is not gospel Christianity.
This is the tragic flaw of Packer ‘s assertion that good Catholics and good Evangelicals are Christians together. For to be a good Catholic, one should understand a loyal advocate of all that the Catholic Church teaches. And the truth is those teachings are a departure from the saving gospel. Martin Luther’s initial steps towards the Reformation was when he started departing from being a good Catholic!
2. Tactical alliance is not Christian unity
Having common enemies may justify espousing common causes (campaign against abortion; etc.). But this is not the same as espousal of common faith. Alliance may be called for on certain issues. Rushing to this unity is to give up on the highest issues of all. The defect of this reasoning is its failure to appreciate the greater danger posed by falsehood on gospel issues. Granted that the forces of immorality must not be allowed to have their way by a defaulting church. But to think that moral campaign is the key is to miss out on the lesson of history. Prior to Luther, there have been campaigns for moral reform in the Church notably that of Girolamo Savonarola – without much dent on the Church and on society. It was when Luther defied the falsehood of Rome that Europe shook, and history changed course.
3.Seeking conversion is not proselytizing
In one sweeping statement of the ECT, the Catholics are put outside the pale of legitimate gospel witness. It is demoted to the category of sheep-stealing. It misses the point entirely. Proselytizing is transferring from one religious affiliation into another. Conversion is faith-response to the gospel of salvation (Acts 20:21).
If Catholics – and Evangelicals for that matter- are not taught the gospel, they need to be converted. Belonging to this or that community of faith will not cancel that.
Clearly, the trend now is toward closing the gap between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals – in the theological arena, as well as, in social issues. Is this a welcome development?
Living in a country that is predominantly Catholic, there is nothing that would be more welcome to this Evangelical writer than to finally be one with Catholics. If we are all brethren, to break ranks is indeed a distasteful deed worthy of rebuke. But I could think of something that is worse. And that is to assume that someone, or a community for that matter, is in no need of the gospel when the assumption proves unfounded. For then the person, or the community, is left without the only gospel that can save the soul. The insistence to be charitable leads to a cruel default of responsibility.
The name Evangelical derives from the profession of the Evangel – that is, the gospel. To be an Evangelical, so long as one is true to its historic content, is to insist on the biblical gospel as the most basic minimum of Christianity. And the question to ask in deciding to unite with anyone as a brother, or a whole community as brethren, is whether the biblical gospel is held and believed.
Does the Roman Catholic institution hold to and believe in the biblical gospel? What needs underscoring is the basis of unity. It is not similarity of vocabulary. Nor is it agreement in some beliefs no matter how fundamental. It is first and foremost belief in the saving gospel as taught in the Word of God. Let us learn from the Reformer John Calvin the right attitude to unity:
Agreement or union is, indeed, singularly a good thing, because there is nothing better or more desirable than peace. But we must ever bear in mind, that in order that men may happily unite together, obedience to God’s Word must be the beginning. The bond, then, of lawful concord among us is this – that we obey God from first to last; for accursed is every union where there is no regard to God and to His Word. (John Calvin, Commentary on Jeremiah IV: p.211)
It is good to be united with the Catholics when the day comes that they truly possess the gospel. But it is betrayal of our Lord and cruelty to the Catholics themselves to grant them, by mere human signatures, ‘the gift of salvation’ without the gospel.
Noel A. Espinosa is the principal of Grace Ministerial Academy, Manila, Philippines. This article is taken from the newly launched Reformation Issue #4
On Doctrine and Practice July 16, 2019
A charge that is made repeatedly against historic Christianity is that its stress on doctrine makes it authoritarian, theoretical, and cold. The Christian religion is a practical affair; putting the faith in terms of truth to be believed alienates or repels many who would otherwise be sympathetic. As John Robinson puts it, ‘the effect of […]
Christianity and Culture July 12, 2019
One of the greatest of the problems that have agitated the Church is the problem of the relation between knowledge and piety, between culture and Christianity. This problem has appeared first of all in the presence of two tendencies in the Church — the scientific or academic tendency, and what may be called the practical […]