"I pray that they may be one, even as we are one." Our Lord's high priestly prayer, with Golgotha looming on the horizon, has been the source of hope and no small amount of shame for a Christianity that is more divided today than at any time since the Savior prayed in Gethsemane that anxious evening.
Rent asunder in the eleventh century by various issues (chief among them being whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or from the Father and the Son), Christendom was divided into Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman or Latin Christianity. Throughout the Middle Ages, many of Rome's leading theologians complained of creeping Pelagianism, but their warnings went largely unheeded by an increasingly apathetic, corrupt, and worldly curia. Forerunners of the Reformation, such as Wycliffe, Waldo, and Hus, intensified these charges, to their physical ruin. But when Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, inspired and assisted by the recent scholarship of Renaissance humanists like Erasmus of Rotterdam, revealed the corrupt theology that had rested on widely recognized corrupt translations, the debates over nature and grace erupted into the fiercest conflagration since the time of the apostles.
In time, other reformers, trained in the best of Renaissance scholarship, would take their place at Luther's side. At first, it seemed as though a universal council might be called to settle the dispute and Luther and other reformers held out hope that such a council might decide in their favor. Although the German reformer was excommunicated by the Pope, it was still possible for "protestants" to remain loyal Roman Catholics--that is, until Rome finally called that council and decided that the discoveries of the reformers, despite the fact that their own best minds provided the linguistic and historical scholarship that led to them, were, in fact, heretical departures from the Catholic faith. Despite the fact that Rome had now officially condemned the Gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone, in precise and unmistakably perspicuous language, reformers and Roman representatives burned the midnight oil in attempts to reconcile the widening division. Calvin's Antidote to the Council of Trent and Chemnitz's treatment from the Lutheran side matched Trent's clarity in presenting the Protestant objections. Both traditions spent the next few centuries unpacking these definitions and positions.
Such debates strike modern people with a certain charming curiosity, but the notion that the Roman or the Protestant churches of today stand where their historic forebears stood on these issues is rarely taken seriously.
To be sure, much has happened since the Second Vatican Council meeting in the 1960's. Many Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians hailed the Council's irenic treatment of Protestants (now "separated brethren" rather than apostates) as an open door to reunion. Others on both sides went so far as to regard it as Rome's "reformation." After three decades of reflection, still others on both sides are compelled to regard the Council as more akin to the Enlightenment than the Reformation, with its openness to and influences from liberal Protestantism.
Regardless, Vatican II has provided an unparalleled impetus for energetic dialogue between Protestants and Catholics, as well as dialogue with other religions. Every major Protestant tradition (Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Methodist, Baptist) has its own official commissions and conferences with Rome and these ecumenical exchanges have doubtless produced greater understanding, clarity, and a spirit of openness and cooperation, the blessings of which must not be lightly dismissed.
Furthermore, an era of American nativism and irrational suspicion--so prominent especially in Victorian images of Rome as a seditious political movement--has been replaced by an environment in which Evangelicals and Roman Catholics may even be seen together in Bible studies, at conferences, in common prayer and opposition to the moral and social evils of our time. Protestants have much to learn from Rome's mature reflections in the realm of moral philosophy, metaphysics, epistemology, and the like, and many of the most irascible defenders of Reformation doctrine have nevertheless openly shared many philosophical presuppositions with Rome. The reformers themselves made use of natural theology and freely cited a common Catholic consensus for illumination of the infallible Scriptures. Their descendants hardly seemed troubled to make common cause on these points.
With this as the background, we come to a document that has attracted no small interest in recent days, Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium. Drafted by John Neuhaus, the document is signed and enthusiastically supported by such Roman Catholic representatives as John Cardinal O'Connor and Monsignor William Murphy, and by such respected Evangelicals as Charles Colson, J. I. Packer, Bill Bright, Pat Robertson, and Jack White. Because of its wide appeal (leaders on both sides are adding their support and signatures as this is being written), it is imperative that some critique be made of the document. The following is an attempt to reflect on the serious challenges and claims of this call, and it is offered in prayer that we may be united in truth as well as love. We shall follow the outline of the document itself.
The document begins by acknowledging that it does not speak officially for any of the institutions that its signatories represent, but is motivated by a common vision to reach a lost world, expressed in the words of Pope John Paul II, as "a springtime of world missions."
"As Christ is one, so the Christian mission is one. Legitimate diversity, however, should not be confused with existing divisions between Christians that obscure the one Christ and hinder the one mission. There is a necessary connection between the visible unity of Christians and the mission of the one Christ." Evangelicals and Roman Catholics are called upon to "confess [their] sins against the unity that Christ intends for all his disciples."
The first question that comes to mind concerns the nature of the Christian mission. It is assumed that there is agreement on the nature of this mission, but that seems to ignore the fact that, for both traditions, the mission is derived from the message. If the mission of Rome is to bring all men and women into communion with the Pope and the sacerdotal and sacramental ministry of that body--a mission that is modified, but not in the least repudiated by Vatican II--and the mission of Evangelicals is to bring men and women into communion with the sole mediation of Christ, then serious barriers to a common mission must be addressed before unity is merely assumed.
Second, confession of sin against unity is a serious business. Schism ranks with heresy itself as a crime against God. Those who willfully perpetuate division on the basis of pride, suspicion, and self-interest are not held guiltless. But this, too, begs the question of whether the historical divisions between Evangelicals and Rome are in that category. It assumes that Christ demands unity between Rome and Evangelicals and that an unwillingness to accept this is a sin "against the unity that Christ intends for all his disciples."
We maintain that Christ does intend unity in the truth, but deny that he requires unity with anyone who preaches any other Gospel than the one that was believed by Abraham, and delivered by our Lord and his apostles with great clarity. At question for us is whether Rome officially tolerates--for we are certain that she does not herself officially teach--her children to maintain views that Evangelicals must regard as essential to the unity for which Christ prayed. This question must be settled before we can confess sins against unity.
If Rome continues to uphold the Decrees and Canons of the Council of Trent, all individual members of that body who follow those decrees (which, in Roman Catholic ecclesiology must include every faithful son or daughter) continue to stand in opposition to the unchanging Gospel of Christ. If they stray from the official teaching of Rome, either from ignorance or in opposition to those statements, they may be regarded as brothers and sisters in Christ. Nevertheless, that does not require or allow institutional unity based on a common ecclesial mission. If our mission is to confront the moral, political, and social influences of secularism, then surely there is a sufficient basis for common cause. But is this the mission of the church? If the mission of the church as the church is to preach the Word correctly and rightly administer the sacraments, the question must be raised as to whether there is a sufficient agreement in these areas to warrant--in fact, to demand--common witness.
The document further muddies the waters by insisting that, "The one Christ and one mission includes many other Christians, notably the Eastern Orthodox and those Protestants not commonly identified as evangelical. All Christians are encompassed in the prayer, 'May they all be one.'" Again, the drafters beg the question. Who are "those Protestants not commonly identified as Evangelicals" but Protestant liberals, whether old-line modernists or postmodern radical theologians? If Evangelicals can regard divisions not only between Protestants and Catholics, but between classical Christians and liberals as unnecessary and unchristian "sins" that need to be confessed and repented of, one wonders if there is any point to maintaining a distinct evangelical identity at all. As J. Gresham Machen argued so powerfully earlier this century, Evangelicals do not view liberalism in its various forms as a different style or expression of a common faith, but as a studied departure from the Christian religion.
Here it is useful to distinguish between catholic and evangelical as adjectives. Orthodox Protestants, in contradistinction to sects, have always maintained their catholic character as essential to their identity and mission. The word catholic refers to that which, in the oft-quoted formula of Vincent of Laurens, has been believed by everyone, everywhere, in all times. Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants have historically regarded the core beliefs that unite them--settled by the ecumenical councils of the first five centuries--to be essential to catholic, or common, Christianity. Among these convictions are the two natures of Christ in one person, the Trinity, the virgin birth of our Lord, His vicarious atonement, bodily resurrection, ascension, and second coming in judgment. The reformers as fiercely defended catholic Christianity as any Romanist. In fact, they opposed the charge of innovation, arguing that they were the ones who were being faithful to the apostolic, catholic faith, and felt obliged to call upon the church fathers--Augustine, Anselm, Bernard, and others--to bolster that claim.
Even as one former Evangelical wrote Evangelical Is Not Enough, so the reformers believed that "Catholic is not enough." Although Rome rightly insisted upon these great pillars of faith, it was also essential to affirm that one was justified or declared righteous before a just and holy God by the perfect righteousness of Christ, imputed to the believer through faith alone. Therefore, one must not only be "catholic," but "evangelical." That is, committed to a Gospel that declares that the believer is justified, not by cooperating with grace, but by having the righteousness of someone else who is perfectly righteous credited to him or her. "That is why 'it was credited to him [Abraham] as righteousness,'" wrote St. Paul. "The words, 'it was credited to him' were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness--for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead" (Rom. 4:22, 23). More will be said of this.
The introduction observes that our two communities have been "marked more by conflict than by cooperation, more by animosity than by love, more by suspicion than by trust, more by propaganda and ignorance than by respect for the truth." Of course, these charges are valid and there is enough sad truth in them to make them sting with a sense of shame. Too often, we do not take the time to understand the issues, but are simply content to ignorantly pass along unwarranted insults in the place of honest and searching reflection. In many instances, we have been motivated by pride and prejudice. While this must be confessed as sin, it may not be used as a smokescreen for the real issues that divide us. Here, the document again appears to muddy the waters, confusing ad hominem polemics with polemics in general. One does not have to engage in the former in order to honestly and humbly pursue the latter. In the final analysis, the matter rests not on the character of the polemicists, but in the truth of their respective claims.
Finally, the introduction attempts to set its proposed agenda before the reader in terms of larger issues. It is not that there are no differences between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics; nor is it the case that these differences do not (or should not) matter. The question in the minds of the document's authors is whether these differences should be allowed to inhibit both groups from confronting a greater common enemy: secularism and other religions.
Missionary objectives strike a sympathetic chord with Evangelicals, since this group has been so ardently committed to the Great Commission. And surely the opposition seems overwhelming to the cause of Christ in our day. Nevertheless, it was Christ who promised, "I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it." It is not we who build Christ's church; nor is it we into whose hands the success or failure of that missionary objective finally falls. We are simply called to be faithful, to make disciples of all nations by proclaiming the Gospel, baptizing and teaching them everything delivered by Christ and his apostles. This is our calling as a church. The greatest danger of the people of God, Jesus said, was for the salt to lose its savor, and it is our conviction as Evangelicals that the savor of the salt is the Gospel of free grace. Our missionary objective is best served--and measured, therefore--not in terms of numerical success, institutional power, or even by the visible unity of Christian denominations, but by a patient, articulate, persistent, and prayerful proclamation of a pure Gospel, in dependence upon the Word and Spirit.
This is not to underestimate the scandal of sectarianism of which Protestants, Evangelicals in particular, have been especially guilty. It is to say that there is within evangelical Christianity a priority given to the Gospel as "the power of God unto salvation," in distinction to, though not divorced from, the church and its other important ministries. A resurgent Islam, Eastern cults, and secularism will not be thwarted by a unified Christendom, but by a clear Gospel.
The document's supporters are "resolved to avoid such conflict between our communities. Beyond that, we are called and we are therefore resolved to explore patterns of working and witnessing together in order to advance the one mission of Christ. The mission that we embrace together is the necessary consequence of the faith that we affirm together." This last remark is especially important, as it claims sufficient doctrinal agreement for a common evangelistic ministry. With that, the document outlines the following points of agreement.
In this section, the document declares that Evangelicals and Roman Catholics affirm a common faith that includes various important convictions: First, that Jesus is Lord. Again, the most ardent Protestants ever since the Reformation have never doubted that catholic substance they hold in common with all Christians. Nevertheless, the next point of agreement is more problematic: "We affirm together that we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ." Of course, what the Evangelical ought to notice as missing is the very important qualifier that the Reformation made famous: sola ("only" or "alone"). Even the Rome of the Counter-Reformation would have had no trouble agreeing that one is justified by grace through faith because of Christ. If not grace, what? If not faith, what? If not Christ, who? But the reformers were condemned by adding sola to each of these: We are saved by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. That is to say, grace is the only motivation on God's part; faith is the only means, and Christ is the only mediator. That one modifier, such a nuisance to Rome and so decisive for Protestants, shaped two distinct answers to the question, "What must I do to be saved?"
Not only is the affirmation sufficiently ambiguous to deny the evangelical distinctive; it is followed immediately by a passage on sanctification, not justification. Rome believed that justification was a process that began with the new birth in baptism and progressed as the believer cooperated with grace and made use of the sacraments. The Protestant doctrine of justification is not something one may approximate, for the differences are quite simple and allow no mediating answers. Rome believed it was a matter of infusion of righteousness, and still does. Protestants believed it was a matter of the imputation of righteousness, though they now do not seem to be as aware of or committed to, that doctrine. This, of course, makes it much easier for Evangelicals and Roman Catholics to find common ground. According to a number of recent polls, the vast majority of Evangelicals believe that human beings are basically good, capable of a moral character that, with God's help, can endure God's final judgment. It is not Rome that has come closer to an evangelical view of imputed righteousness, but Evangelicals who have forfeited their convictions or downplayed their significance. This is what accounts for the rapprochement.
Why did the divisions occur in the first place? Was it because the world was different then? Was it because the key players were of a worse character or temper than we more godly and gracious moderns? Whatever our conclusions, we must beware of a moral superiority that mistakes ignorance, naiveté, and a lack of doctrinal clarity for humility and brotherly love.
Next, the document affirms, "However imperfect our communion with one another, however deep our disagreements with one another, we recognize that there is but one church of Christ." Again, one is astonished at the lack of theological definition and precision. Rome has a fundamentally different ecclesiology to that of Evangelicals. Once more, by evangelical, I do not refer to sects, but to historic Protestants who affirm the catholic creeds and adhere to confessional standards. Protestants recognize a visible church, comprising elect and non-elect members who will be separated at the last day. They are baptized, they hear the Word and receive the Lord's Supper, but not all of them persevere to the end. Then there is an invisible church, comprising the elect of all ages. According to the historic Protestant and evangelical view, the marks of a true visible church are the Word rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. For Rome, the question was whether or not an individual was in full communion with the Roman See. That strict view, which excluded Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians from the kingdom of God, has been modified somewhat by Vatican II. Now, it is believed that as a pebble dropped into a pond creates ripples, so it is possible to be connected to this organic "body of Christ" (i.e., Rome) even though one is outside the inner ring itself. Even atheists, who reveal their search for God in good works, are saved by this saving--if distant--relation to Rome. Karl Rahner called such a person an "Anonymous Christian."
Evangelicals, however, deny this Roman doctrine, whether classical or in its modern modification. A true Christian is one who, through faith in the promise of salvation by Christ alone, has been united to Christ and therefore to his spiritual body, expressed as both the invisible and visible church. It is possible to be a member of the invisible church while a member of a false visible church, as we believe in the case of Roman Catholics. Although there the Word is not rightly preached and the sacraments are not rightly administered, there are individuals who do believe that Christ's saving work is the only reason that God accepts them as his children. We do not believe that salvation depends on how well one can articulate the doctrine of salvation in technical terms, but we do insist as essential for salvation that there be some recognition that God alone saves by Christ alone and that however little knowledge of doctrine is necessary, the essential features of the evangelical doctrine must not be persistently or directly denied.
The first section then closes with an affirmation of the Apostle's Creed. Since this has been affirmed each Sunday in Protestant churches around the world for nearly five centuries, it should come as no surprise that Roman Catholics and Evangelicals could find common ground here. Once more, it has never been denied by Protestantism that there is a shared catholic heritage, but this consensus must not be regarded as a sufficient basis for regarding Rome as a true visible church while it denies what is also essential to Christianity--namely, the Gospel of free justification.
In its second section, the document pleads for greater visible unity. "We do know that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14) and as we are drawn closer to him--walking in that way, obeying that truth, living that life--we are drawn closer to one another." While at first our criticism of this point may appear pedantic, this comment reveals a shift that makes such rapprochement possible. As Evangelicals, we believe that Christ is the Way in the sense that he is our only mediator, not first as a way in which we walk. We believe that he is the Truth, not merely as command to be obeyed, but as an object of saving faith, like the brass serpent in the wilderness. We believe that he is the Life, not chiefly as a manner of living, but as the one whose resurrection and intercession guarantees our own final redemption. We maintain that a shift has taken place in evangelicalism, influenced by an experientially sensitive culture, from objective Christianity to subjective spirituality. If Rome is viewed as an enemy to evangelical faith because of certain practices rather than chiefly for certain doctrines--as was the case in previous pietistic criticism--then to the extent that Rome modifies those practices, it is viewed as opening the way to further communion and consensus. Nevertheless, the Evangelical must not be chiefly interested in whether the services are conducted in Latin or the common tongue; whether the liturgy is "high" or "low," or whether Bible studies, prayer, and the lingo of evangelical spirituality are prominent expressions of piety. So long as the key differences remain over that question, "What must I do to be saved?", every modification will be cosmetic. The real question is whether Evangelicals are sufficiently evangelical themselves to recognize these differences or to regard them as warranting continued division.
Most noteworthy in this section is the moment for which the critical reader has been waiting: A list of the points of difference that both sides recognize as abiding challenges, that nevertheless do not inhibit common witness and the affirmation of a common gospel. And yet, if one is expecting a list of the issues that divided the Evangelicals and Roman Catholics since the Reformation, one will be disappointed. In this list of ten major differences, those responsible for this document have managed to reduce the entire centuries-old conflict to false dilemmas and secondary issues. They are as follows:
1. "The church as an integral part of the Gospel or the church as a communal consequence of the Gospel." By our reckoning, this is the only legitimate dilemma the authors recognize in this list.
2. "The church as visible communion or invisible fellowship of true believers." As has already been argued, the historic Protestant position is that the church is to be understood as both a visible communion and an invisible fellowship of true believers. Here, the two are set in opposition and the nature of the church as a visible communion is recognized as a Roman Catholic rather than evangelical notion.
3. "The sole authority of Scripture--sola Scriptura--or Scripture as authoritatively interpreted in the church." Once more, the Reformation position is reduced to a sectarian absurdity. Historic Protestants (and therefore, we would hope, Evangelicals) regard Scripture as the only infallible test of doctrine and practice. They also believe that the creeds and confessions authoritatively interpret the Scriptures in the church, the view the authors attribute to Rome. Actually, Rome goes beyond the view that the church merely authoritatively interprets Scripture and insists that it infallibly interprets and supplements Scripture.
4. "The soul freedom of the individual Christian or the Magisterium (teaching authority) of the community." No classical Evangelical wishes to affirm "the soul freedom of the individual Christian," for as Luther said of an individualistic approach to exegesis, "That would mean that each man would go to hell in his own way." The church was still viewed as having a magisterial role in interpreting Scripture authoritatively--though not infallibly. The difference was that every believer was part of the church and was therefore capable of interpreting the Bible. Because the whole community was convinced that the Scriptures taught what the confession contained, individual members could be disciplined if their interpretations were contrary to the essentials as understood by the common consensus. The reformers and their descendants were set in opposition not only to Rome's magisterial authority, but also to the individualistic and subjective claims of the Anabaptist radicals. Despite this, that latter position is here regarded as the Protestant position.
5. "The church as local congregation or universal communion." Once again, the authors give us a choice between an Anabaptist and a Roman Catholic view, but the Protestant and evangelical position is that the church has both local--many add regional--and universal expression.
6. "Ministry ordered in apostolic succession or the priesthood of all believers." The priesthood of all believers was not set in opposition to apostolic succession by the reformers. Rather, they interpreted "apostolic succession" as referring to the handing down of the apostolic Gospel intact.
7. "Sacraments and ordinances as symbols of grace or means of grace." Every Protestant confession of faith, whether Lutheran or Reformed, explicitly states that sacraments are means of grace and "not empty symbols," as many confessions express it. Remarkably, the authors place evangelical Protestants other than Baptists in the Roman position. In reality, the debate was whether the sacraments were means of grace (the Protestant view) or operations of grace that derived their power from the priest--ex opere operato--rather than from the sovereign and free work of God's Spirit with the Word. Further, the debate related to the question of whether the Mass was a communion with Christ or a re-sacrificing of Christ for sin.
8. "The Lord's Supper as eucharistic sacrifice or memorial meal." As astonishing as it is, we are again given a choice not between the Protestant and Roman Catholic positions, but between the Roman Catholic and Baptist positions. Although Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss reformer, held to a memorial view of Communion, his successor and the entire Reformed community joined the other Evangelicals in denying the memorialist view. While it may be argued that one can be an Evangelical and hold that position, it is surely not the historic view of the majority of evangelical Christians, who have maintained some notion of a real presence of Christ in the eucharist, whether the Reformed and Anglican view (the believer feeding on Christ in heaven by Spirit-given faith, through the union of the Word with bread and wine) or the Lutheran belief in the physical presence of Christ in the eucharist. While the Baptist view may be included, surely the historic Evangelical views cannot be excluded from the definition of the Evangelical position vis-a-vis Rome.
9. "Remembrance of Mary and the saints or devotion to Mary and the saints." This really was not a prominent debate or theme of the Reformation.
10. "Baptism as sacrament of regeneration or testimony to regeneration." Once more, the debate is stated in a false antithesis. Expressed in these terms, the majority of Evangelicals over the last five centuries would probably be closer to the position identified here as Roman Catholic. The classical Reformed view is not even offered as a distinct mediating position and, based on the preceding, one might easily conclude that the only options are Roman Catholic and Anabaptist views of baptism.
Most astonishing of all, the "material principle of the Reformation," that doctrine by which, according to the reformers, the church stands or falls, justification by faith, is entirely absent from this list. While "remembrance of Mary" versus "devotion to Mary" makes the list, even though it was not a major factor in the division, the one doctrine that is regarded by historians and theologians on both sides of the divide to have been the most important issue is completely passed over in silence. Nor is the monumental debate over monergism and synergism (free will and grace) mentioned. It is rather disappointing to see these glaring errors and an obvious lack of familiarity with the actual issues, in a document that takes so much responsibility in speaking to and for the successors to those debates. Before concessions are made, it is prudent for one to know exactly what one is conceding, and if this is what Evangelicals think that they must set aside in order to cooperate in a common evangelistic task, it is difficult to blame them for doing so on the basis of the preceding misrepresentations.
In its favor, the document does imply that there are some views Roman Catholics and Evangelicals hold concerning each other that may have some justification. For instance, "Evangelicals hold that the Catholic Church has gone beyond Scripture, adding teachings and practices that detract from or compromise the Gospel of God's saving grace in Christ." (Actually, Evangelicals hold that the Catholic Church denies the Gospel of God's saving grace in Christ by its rejection of sola fide and related doctrines.) But if it is acceptable for Evangelicals to continue to hold this view, how can they, in good conscience, speak of a common Gospel, a common mission, and a common Church? The authors and their signatories must answer the following question: Is the Gospel justification by grace alone through faith alone or is it something else--anything else? If it is the former, is it not a contradiction to say that we maintain a common Gospel while the Gospel of justification sola fide is officially condemned by that very body?
At last, the document reaches what is most likely the motivation for such consensus-building: The challenges of secularism in moral, social, and political battles. This is understandable for at least two reasons. First, as there is a shared catholic consensus on the fundamental doctrines we listed in the beginning of this response, so there are many shared assumptions in the field of moral philosophy. Here, not only can Evangelicals and Roman Catholics cooperate; Evangelicals have a great deal to learn from Roman Catholics about natural law, the classical virtues, moral dilemmas, and the like. Evangelicals tend to be issue-oriented, whereas Roman Catholicism has a tradition of incorporating public issues into its theological reflection.
Our forebears appreciated this and often built their own ethical, social, and political views on this shared foundation. Calvin, for instance, modified and advanced Thomas Aquinas' natural law theories in his day. The Protestant Scholastics (the generations immediately following the original reformers) unabashedly employed the traditional Roman Catholic scholastic categories for their theological systematization of the Reformation's insights. For them, guilt by association was a logical fallacy that would be left for future generations of Protestants to commit. They were concerned with truth, and were happy to follow it into common agreement with Rome whenever they believed it to intersect.
This motivation by cultural factors is understandable also from the practical facts of our time and place. At a time of such moral chaos, is it a prudent use of resources to remain divided? And here, surely, Evangelicals should be encouraged to join forces with Roman Catholics, or for that matter, with Jews, Moslems, Hindus, atheists, or anyone else who has some sense of justice and fairness left from the imago Dei stamped on the soul. United by so many common convictions and the shared history of Christianity's first fifteen centuries, Evangelicals and Roman Catholics have no reason not to form common alliances and work together for political, social, and cultural betterment.
But we believe that cultural issues must be clearly distinguished from the mission of the church. By creation, all men and women are obligated to care for this world in all of its brokenness and are to take responsibility for their own failures as stewards. Christians have a special burden, as God's stewards who are called to see the world from his perspective "above the sun." Yet, however this may be the duty of Christians as human beings, it is not the mission of the church as our Lord defined it in the Great Commission. The goal of the mandate in creation was to "be fruitful and multiply," a cultural task to which we are still obligated by creation. But the goal of the Great Commission is to go, baptize, teach, and make disciples for Christ. As individual Christians, we do both, but the latter is the sole mission of the church.
When we confuse these tasks, it is easy for those who have a particular burden for political and cultural issues to undervalue the doctrinal and theological matters that are essential to the church's unique calling. In a particularly decadent time and place in a fallen world, different institutions offer different solutions. The church does not offer cultural, moral, social, or political solutions, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ, "the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes." It is equivalent to God's personal exercise of power and effectual persuasion. Thus, the mission of the church and the consensus upon which it may be formed must be determined by theological rather than cultural considerations. We must be faithful to the Word, for it has a power that no ecclesiastically united front can exert.
In summary, we may--indeed, we must--"contend together" as Evangelicals and Roman Catholics for what we have in common: the Apostle's Creed, cultural concerns, and the defense of universal truth and morality. But we cannot--we must not--confuse such common cause with a common Gospel, a common Church, and a common mission while the Roman See persists in its denial of the message that makes the church's existence both possible and necessary.
The document bases its common witness not on its affirmation of the Gospel to which we must witness, but on its affirmation of the experience of conversion. Conversion is expressed by the authors as "a continuing process, so that the whole life of a Christian should be a passage from death to life, from error to truth, from sin to grace. We seek and pray for the conversion of others, even as we recognize our own continuing need to be fully converted." It is not the case that such expressions ought to be denied by Evangelicals, but it is quite clear that the tie that binds is conversion, not an objective Gospel message, and this reveals the fact that modern Evangelicals share an emphasis on salvation as conversion (such as in the "born again" emphasis) that makes it easier to see salvation more as a process than as a declaration of right standing that results in life-long sanctification and eventual glorification.
Evangelicals, before the influence of Arminian revivalism, had the cross, not conversion, at the center, and they preached Christ, not faith or the experience of rebirth. To the extent that Evangelicals have replaced the objective emphasis (what Christ did for us) with the subjective (what Christ does in us), to that extent Evangelicals have become more closely linked to the Roman emphasis on justification as a process of conversion. When piety, discipleship, and spirituality become the chief characteristics of Evangelicalism rather than products of Evangelical doctrine, the distinctions between the two communions lose their clarity. Of course, this may appear to be an easy solution, but it comes at an enormous cost.
This last section is also one of the most troubling, although it does follow from the preceding arguments. Those who sign it agree that they will not "proselytize," which they regard as "sheep-stealing," as though evangelical and Roman Catholic churches were merely two different expressions of the same essential beliefs. "First, as much as we might believe one community is more fully in accord with the Gospel than another, we as Evangelicals and Catholics affirm that opportunity and means for growth in Christian discipleship are available in our several communities." Once again, the test is not whether the Gospel in its purity is available in our several communities, but it is the opportunity for discipleship and growth that determines the identity of a true church. On the basis of this, the document's supporters agree not to attempt to convert Roman Catholics to evangelical Christianity, since it is "neither theologically legitimate nor a prudent use of resources."
On what basis is it not "theologically legitimate" to attempt to reach Roman Catholics or liberal Protestants with the Gospel and suggest that they find a church where they can hear the Word clearly preached and receive the sacraments properly? There have been no theological arguments that even remotely suggest the wisdom of such a conclusion: it is a mere assertion. We insist that so long as the theological differences we have already addressed remain, we must continue to encourage brothers and sisters in unhealthy and unfaithful communions--even if they are self-styled Evangelical churches--to sit under the proclamation of the Word properly preached. This is not bigotry, but a love of souls. It is not only true for Roman Catholics and liberal Protestants, but for fundamentalists, who do not hear the Gospel in their churches or evangelical charismatics, or members of Lutheran or Reformed churches where the Word is not clearly preached. The Gospel defines everything, including the identity of a true visible church.
As we conclude, it will be useful to call upon the most recent papal encyclical as an example of how Evangelicals may profit from and cooperate with Roman Catholic moral theologians, even while they carefully reject Rome's errors of systematic and biblical theology. It is impossible to be unmoved by the clarity of purpose, vision, and explanation in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor. In it, one finds one of the clearest commitments to absolute, unchanging moral foundations for a dynamic, constantly changing world. As evangelical Protestants, we read it with profit, but cannot help notice that whenever it moves from moral theology to systematic theology, the persistent errors remain. The encyclical is based on the text of Matthew 19:16, in which the rich young ruler asks Jesus, "Teacher, what good must I do to be saved?" Salvation is expressed in terms of discovering "the full meaning of life," having an "encounter with Christ," and turning to Christ "in order to receive from Him the answer to their questions about what is good and what is evil." Where Jesus tells the religious ruler who wanted to justify himself, "Only God is good," the encyclical interprets this as saying, "God makes himself known and acknowledged as the One who 'alone is good'; the One who despite man's sin remains the 'model' for moral action, in accordance with the command, 'You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy' (Lev 19:2); as the One who, faithful to His love for man, gives him His Law (cf. Ex 19:9, 24 and 20:18, 21) in order to restore man's original and peaceful harmony with the Creator and with all creation." To avoid the obvious works-righteousness of this interpretation, the author acknowledges that we cannot fulfill the Law perfectly and that "this 'fulfillment' can come only from a gift of God: the offer of a share in the divine Goodness revealed and communicated in Jesus, the one whom the rich young man addresses with the words, 'Good Teacher' (Mk 10:17; Lk 18:18)."
The answer to the ruler's question, therefore, has not changed for Rome. The righteousness God requires is still by the Law, not by faith alone. It is a "gift," not in the sense of imputation of an alien righteousness, but in the sense of a revelation of communication of divine goodness somehow infused into us through Jesus. In fact, the encyclical goes on to use the word "infusion" in this connection and concludes, "In this way, a close connection is made between eternal life and obedience to God's commandments. From the very lips of Jesus, the new Moses, man is once again given the commandments of the Decalogue. Jesus himself definitively confirms them and proposes them to us as the way and condition of salvation" (emphasis added). The reason that the rich young ruler is told to perfectly keep the commandments if he wishes to be saved is not in order to drive him to despair of his own righteousness, but "the Good Teacher invites him to enter upon the path of perfection." Therefore, "the commandments are the first and indispensable condition for having eternal life."
At the end of the day, Rome has not changed even if Vatican II is distinguished from the Council of Trent. The modern Roman Church goes so far as to declare that "those who without any fault do not know anything about Christ or His Church, yet who search for God with a sincere heart and under the influence of grace, try to put into effect the will of God as known to them through the dictate of conscience can obtain eternal salvation. For whatever goodness and truth is found in them is considered by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel and bestowed by Him who enlightens everyone that they may in the end have life" (Dogmatic Constitution of the Church Lumen Gentium, 16).
The remaining message of this encyclical, drawing on historic Christian and biblical insights, is rich with moral wisdom and Evangelicals can greatly enrich their own reflection in this area by reading, discussing, and incorporating its concise criticisms and suggestions for the culture. Nevertheless, the Gospel remains obscured and disfigured, with confidence in the goodness of human nature and salvation on that basis. The tragedy is that the majority of Evangelicals now support the same undergirding convictions, greatly influenced by the optimism of the modern spirit. According to some studies, nearly three-fourths of the adult evangelical population in America believe that man is basically good, and a growing number of significant evangelical theologians are virtually indistinguishable from the inclusivism of Karl Rahner and the Second Vatican Council. Drawn together with the shift from objective to subjective considerations, from the object of faith to the act of faith, and from the centrality of truth and clear convictions to the centrality of piety, spirituality, and action, the rapprochement has more to do with Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and liberal Protestants becoming increasingly conformed to the spirit of the age than with genuine ecumenicity and unity in the truth.
Jesus did pray that we may all be one, but he qualified it with the petition, "Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth" (Jn 17:17). It is not by well-intentioned efforts at making concessions in order to offer a united front that the church will conquer secularism, but by the Gospel. When the Apostle Paul offered his impassioned plea for unity, it was always from a desire that doctrine would produce, not inhibit, such genuine concord, as "we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God" (emphasis added). To be sure, these are not merely cognitive and doctrinal, but they are not less than that. After all, adds the Apostle, "Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Him who is the Head, that is, Christ" (Eph 4:13, 15).
We pray that a divided Christendom will become one and that Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics will continue to listen to each other, learn from each other, and challenge each other. We also affirm together that we have many Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ. But until the changeless Gospel is clearly affirmed and proclaimed, we do not believe we are given permission by God to concede that salvific Word to any body that does not maintain the essential purity of that Gospel, whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or indeed, even Protestant.
While we gladly cooperate with other Christians where there is a shared consensus and in a manner appropriate to the matters of that shared consensus, the best way to unity, we believe, is to proclaim the truth as the Spirit sets the captives free through the light of the Gospel and under the guidance and ministry of the church. And we long for the day when Rome not only repudiates the Council of Trent, but also the errors of subsequent declarations that have been influenced by liberal Protestantism. We also call upon Evangelicals to decide whether they will continue to retain an Evangelical faith themselves. This is not a matter of bigotry or prejudice, but is guided by the fear of falling under St. Paul's warning, "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!" (Gal 1:8).
We cannot sacrifice peace with God for peace with each other. We must continue to protest against every denial of the Gospel and we affirm that the Great Commission requires us to seek the salvation of the lost even in our own communions. If they are not in a true visible church, where the Word is rightly preached and sacraments rightly administered, they must be encouraged to join one, but this is true also for "Evangelical" churches where these marks are not present. Even for the visible unity of a shattered church whose divisions offer a crippled witness, we may not sacrifice the essence of the Gospel. For by it, we are saved, together with all who will embrace the Gospel to their soul's joy and lasting peace. We hope for the Gospel's success in this bewildering time.
Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.
Issue: "The Reformation Then & Now" March/April 1994 Vol. 3 No. 2 Page number(s): 22-33
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