Why the Alliance?

Michael S. Horton
Thursday, June 7th 2007
Jan/Feb 2002

In the churches of the Protestant Reformation, the Apostles' or Nicene Creed is recited regularly, including the line, "I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church." Catholic means universal, and it refers to those truths that are, as St. Paul identified them, to be held "without controversy" (1 Tim. 3:16, KJV). It also refers to that body of Christians who, distinct from the heretical and schismatic sects that have plagued Christian unity throughout the ages, submit to the doctrine and discipline of Christ as he mediates his prophetic, priestly, and kingly ministry in the visible Church through the Scriptures.

Unfortunately, the impression is sometimes given in Protestant circles that the Christian Church started with Billy Graham or with the Protestant Reformation, whereas in fact the Reformation of the sixteenth century was an attempt to recover the ancient faith from the excesses of human pride and folly that had occurred during the Middle Ages. The reformers were not trying to start a new Church. That is why it was called the Reformation and not the Revolution. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the other reformers saw themselves not as new apostles or prophets sent to establish a new and higher kingdom, but as ministers of the "one holy, catholic, and apostolic church" that had existed by God's grace throughout the ages. They identified themselves with this. And so does the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. But unlike other cooperative efforts that came to fruition during the 1990s and that hoped to weaken the differences introduced by the Reformation, the Alliance's outlook on unity and cooperation among Christians is one that staunchly affirms the central truths of the Reformation while also seeking to be catholic in the right sense of the word.

For instance, months after the Alliance was formed (1994), the statement "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" (ECT) was published, and in many quarters signaled a breakthrough in Protestant-Catholic relations. The unity achieved in this document was in the estimation of a number of evangelical leaders a weak one since it obscured the crucial differences between Rome and Protestants concerning the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Although the founding members of the Alliance did not have ECT explicitly in view as the basis for a new organization of confessing evangelicals, they did sense that evangelicalism was experiencing a failure of resolve concerning the central truths reclaimed in the Protestant Reformation. In response to the erosion of evangelical conviction in the face of modernity, the Alliance produced the "Cambridge Declaration," (1996) a statement that reaffirmed the central truths of Scripture and called evangelicals back to the ongoing task of repentance and reformation (see Some have wondered, however, whether the Alliance's statement is a proposal for unity fraught with problems similar to those exhibited by ECT. After all, although the differences among Lutherans, Baptists, and Presbyterians, for instance, may not be as great as those between Protestants and Catholics, is not the unity implied by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals one that also minimizes important differences among Protestants in matters not simply of church polity and sacraments but also of doctrine?

The answer to this question first involves a disclaimer about the nature of the unity affirmed by the Alliance. Because it is neither a church nor even an interchurch movement, the Alliance can lower the stakes and allow for a low-key cooperation on issues that matter most to us all. But precisely for that reason, we have to always be aware of the temptation to view our work as a ministry in its own right rather than as a resource for the ministry of the churches. Our goal is not to get together to complain, or to pontificate to the evangelical world, much less to impress the powers-that-be in Evangelicalism with our "power block," but to generate constructive materials that churches can use, to create a "demand" for such churches, and to offer encouragement to those who are seeking reformation in their own churches. This sets the Alliance apart from other cooperative endeavors in the evangelical world. Agencies such as the National Association of Evangelicals exist largely, it seems, to coordinate joint inter-church efforts, not to promote a particular theology. Magazines such as Christianity Today, whatever their editors might hold personally, are institutionally incapable of defending a particular doctrinal perspective-even a classic evangelical one. Increasingly, voices that used to be "prophetic" are "managerial" in orientation, concentrating on keeping the factions together rather than standing for a particular interpretation of the Word of God. Over against mainstream evangelical projects that involve minimizing doctrinal differences, the Alliance seeks to promote the central truths of the Reformation, namely, salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone. That crucial Protestant insight lies at the heart of the Alliance's endeavors and is the only lasting basis for genuine reformation in the churches. Still, the Alliance is not a church or an interdenominational agency. We provide resources that pastors and laypeople tell us they can find nowhere else.

But is this basic truth sufficient for common purpose among evangelicals? In other words, what is to be gained from the Alliance by those Protestants who are firmly committed to their own denominational heritage? The Alliance may be useful to different groups for different reasons. Some Southern Baptists and independent evangelicals, for instance, may be unfamiliar with their own historical roots and the way that Arminianism rather than Reformation theology has increasingly influenced their ecclesiastical traditions. As laypeople and church officers from these churches come to recognize what the Reformation faith is and that it rightly belongs to them, they may be encouraged in their own struggle and support those leaders in their communions who promote these doctrines.

Churches may also be more easily reformed according to God's Word when they see that they are not necessarily embracing an alien perspective. Baptists, for example, can appeal to the London and Philadelphia confessions and to various institutional charters to indicate a stream of Calvinistic views concerning sin and salvation. Even in independent churches where creeds and confessions may be replaced by significantly briefer statements of faith, a remarkable consensus has existed on the sufficiency of Scripture and salvation by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. As many of us who regularly encounter mainstream evangelicals can attest, this is no small encouragement and incentive, especially for many who feel isolated. This probably goes largely for evangelical Anglicans as well, who can easily point to their Reformed roots in the Thirty-Nine Articles as evidence of continuity with the aims of the Alliance.

On the other hand, conservative Lutherans may find the Alliance useful for a different purpose. Surely their identity is not at stake in whether they participate in the Alliance. (Some of them may think that it's at stake by their participation!) Unlike many other conservative bodies, Lutherans of the stripe we normally encounter (especially the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) are largely confessional and possess a strong sense of identity. But sometimes that strength can be a weakness, and a parochial spirit can breed a sense of false confidence, whereas the same distorting forces in modern Evangelicalism nevertheless eat away at confessional integrity from the inside. This has been all too true of confessional Reformed bodies as well, as the rapid "Americanization" of Dutch-American Calvinism in recent decades has proven. Such confessional traditions can benefit from an encounter with non-Lutheran and non-Reformed Presbyterian Christians who are committed to many of the central concerns of biblical, apostolic, evangelical Christianity. Furthermore, a higher profile within American Evangelicalism (the fastest-growing wing of Christianity) provides another platform for confessional Lutherans to speak to a wider circle of evangelicals interested in finding sound churches and to participate in shaping a growing movement of truly evangelical Christianity within that wider stream.

Here a word should be said about the particular blessings of Reformed and Lutheran interactions in the Alliance. Although the Alliance is wider, these are the two major streams of the magisterial Reformation and even those who do not fit neatly into either category are connected to one or both of those traditions by history or sympathy. (For instance, such denominations as the Evangelical Free and Evangelical Covenant Church hail from Lutheran pietism while Reformed pietism has given rise to various groups such as the Moravians and Calvinistic Baptists.) I have learned more about Reformed theology by interacting with my Lutheran friends. On the one hand, I have learned that our two traditions are closer than I had imagined. Growing up in evangelical pietist circles, I lumped Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians together with Roman Catholicism and liberalism. As I became a serious reader of Reformed theology, however, doors swung open that introduced me to a new world. The Reformation world was, of course, filled with polemics and division. But it was also far more "catholic," open-minded, ecumenical, and generous than my evangelical upbringing had prepared me to believe. Increasingly, I have come to see that such emphases as Law-Gospel hermeneutics, Christ-centered preaching and theologizing, a robust view of the means of grace and the ministry, and a dogged commitment to the gospel of free justification in Christ represent an enormous shared space of agreement. Many of our Reformed and Lutheran theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries knew that better than we do today, even though the polemics ran high when it came to discussions of christological interpretation related to the Lord's Supper. We still have not found agreement on the mode of Christ's presence in the Supper, and there are other differences between us, but our Reformed and Presbyterian fathers were right all along to see confessional Lutherans as our next of kin. I have become more Reformed through my interaction with my Lutheran brothers and sisters-not just as a result of going back to the sources to defend our doctrine, but as a result of going back to the sources and discovering many shared themes and emphases that, frankly, do not appear to even be on the radar screen any longer in many of our Reformed and Presbyterian circles. I still think Lutherans are in error on some important points, just as they regard the Reformed; but the shared struggle for evangelical truth and the growing understanding of our real and not just caricatured differences has made it all worthwhile.

In recent months I have had the opportunity to share our vision and, more importantly, our message, with many people who not only have never been exposed to the Alliance, but to Reformation teaching. There is nothing more exciting than watching the lights go on as people understand in a deeper way what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Such encounters remind me why we call ourselves the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Like many others on the Council, I sometimes struggle with this broad identification. And yet, I am also constantly reminded of how many evangelical brothers and sisters there are out there who, though confused, are so thoroughly committed to Scripture that when they are convinced by it, they are quick to acknowledge its truth. This is not only something often missing from mainline churches, but, in my experience, is often missing in my own Reformed circles. It is not that the latter have a lower doctrine of Scripture, but that in our confessional circles it is so easy for us to treat the great truths enshrined in our confessional heritage as just that-a heritage to be accepted, rather than as a treasure to be rediscovered and shared in each generation. Many evangelicals display an enthusiasm for biblical preaching, teaching, and worship, not to mention evangelism, that our stodgy "conservatives" do not muster. Happily, a new Reformation is not dependent on Reformed, Presbyterian, or Lutheran churches, but on God's Spirit blowing, by his Word, wherever he will-and often in the most unlikely of places.

Whether or not the Spirit is at work in the efforts of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals-and we believe he is-we remain convinced that the contemporary Church is in desperate need of reformation and that a recovery of the central truths of the Reformation is necessary in part for such an outcome. Despite the differences that exist within the Alliance-and they are not slight-the unity of mission and message that exists among us is undoubtedly our greatest strength. And despite our own unfaithfulness, God remains faithful in getting his Word out in every generation-even our own.

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Thursday, June 7th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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