Monday, October 21, 2002

Evangelicals and Catholics Together

Chris Burgwald of Varitas has an interesting beginning to a review of an article by Jacob Michael on the Catholic Apologetics International (CAI) site about the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) meetings. These meetings consisted of Catholic and Evangelical luminaries and resulted in at least two documents.

The first document arising from these meetings, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium, came out in 1994. For purposes of brevity I will refer to this document as ECT I.

On the evangelical side, signatories (drawn from both participants and endorsers) of ECT I include Chuck Colson, J. I. Packer, Bill Bright, Pat Robertson, Os Guinness, Mark Noll, and others.

On the Catholic side, I am uncertain which of the signatories are "luminaries", but it includes Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Bishop Carlos A. Sevilla, S.J. Archiocese of San Francisco and Fr. Matthew Lamb of Boston College. (Better to see the list of names at the end of the ECT I document to understand whether the Catholic names I list are in fact representative of the signatories.)

In the introduction of ECT I, it is stated that neither side is acting as an official representative of their community. This goes without saying for the Evangelicals; there is no ecclesiastical/legal basis for any Protestant, no matter how respected and universally acclaimed, to speak in an official status for the evangelical community. For the Catholics, the statement means that ECT proceeded without any official endorsement from the Vatican. It is my understanding that the ECT documents have received at least tacit approval from Rome, but I am not totally certain of this information.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the meetings, as I understand it, was to forge ways in which Evangelicals and Catholics could unite to fight the culture wars, jointly tackling issues such as abortion, pornography, secularism, and other moral crises. Another purpose was to alleviate, by fostering mutual respect and trust, violent and deadly confrontations between Evangelicals and Catholics occurring with alarming frequency in certain parts of the world such as South America.

For whatever reason, ECT I goes far beyond a joint statement on the culture wars and mutual trust. Perhaps the writers were carried away in their zeal to write a mission statement that pleased everyone. Perhaps they actually believed they could make a significant contribution toward tempering a 500 year old schism.

What they ended up with, at best, was guarded ambiguity, a kind of multiculturalistic politically correct document that at times reads like college freshman diversity-sensitivity training. For example, consider this Frankensteinian pronouncement from ECT I:

It is understandable that Christians who bear witness to the Gospel try to persuade others that their communities and traditions are more fully in accord with the Gospel. There is a necessary distinction between evangelizing and what is today commonly called proselytizing or "sheep stealing." We condemn the practice of recruiting people from another community for purposes of denominational or institutional aggrandizement. At the same time, our commitment to full religious freedom compels us to defend the legal freedom to proselytize even as we call upon Christians to refrain from such activity.

This is utterly devoid of meaning. It says there should be no sheep stealing for the purposes of "denominational or institutional aggrandizement". This is textbook doublespeak. It is meant to please the Catholics, who don't like sheep stealing, while providing a loophole for the Evangelicals, who can always claim their motives are much purer than denominational or institutional aggrandizement. Similarly, it then asks Christians to refrain from an activity that it simultaneously describes as a legal freedom.

I don't know what the mainstream Catholic response was to ECT I, or for that matter the mainstream Evangelical response, but my small corner of the Reformed Protestant world was stunned.

In the section of ECT I dealing with a joint affirmation, we read: We affirm together that we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ.

For many Reformed Protestants, this statement is so imprecise, it is like John Paulos' clever Innumeracy example: "McDonalds has sold more than 1 hamburger". It is true enough, but expresses nothing substantive. The orthodox Reformed position of justified by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone is not precluded by the joint affirmation, but is certainly not implied by it. Indeed, it is so substantively different that the joint affirmation on justification "feels" to some (myself included) to be more of a capitulation than anything else.

This is compounded by the list, appearing later in ECT I, of our acknowledged differences:
Among points of difference in doctrine, worship, practice, and piety that are frequently thought to divide us are these:
  • The church as an integral part of the Gospel or the church as a communal consequence of the Gospel.
  • The church as visible communion or invisible fellowship of true believers.
  • The sole authority of Scripture (sola scriptura) or Scripture as authoritatively interpreted in the church.
  • The "soul freedom" of the individual Christian or the Magisterium (teaching authority) of the community.
  • The church as local congregation or universal communion.
  • Ministry ordered in apostolic succession or the priesthood of all believers.
  • Sacraments and ordinances as symbols of grace or means of grace.
  • The Lord's Supper as eucharistic sacrifice or memorial meal.
  • Remembrance of Mary and the saints or devotion to Mary and the saints.
  • Baptism as sacrament of regeneration or testimony to regeneration.

First, more of the guarded ambiguity: [these differences] are frequently thought to divide us rather than a more definitive and realistic we are divided by.

Worse yet, there is no mention of Justification by Faith Alone. Not only was the primary cause of the Reformation missing from the joint affirmation on Justification, it didn’t even make the top ten list of differences "thought" to divide us.

How can this be? Unless the Catholic Church has altered her position on Sola Fide (she has not), then the only interpretation a reasonable person could make is that the Protestants, due to the conspicuous absence of the word alone, had retreated from the position of the Reformers.

Of course many Protestants have done exactly that. However many of us still affirm the same view of sola fide held by the Reformers, for the same reason: it is biblical.

One cannot easily argue with the stated goals of ECT. It may be entirely possible, proper, and beneficial that Catholics and Protestants work together to fight the abomination of abortion. Such alliances should, however, steer clear of joint theological affirmations beyond, at most, the historic creeds.

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