In 1920, a “Plan of Union” for American Protestantism was put forward based on an “evangelical creed.” In his essay “In Behalf of Evangelical Religion,” Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield observed that the new confession being proposed “contains nothing which is not believed by Evangelicals,” and yet “nothing which is not believed… by the adherents of the Church of Rome, for example. There is nothing about justification by faith in this creed.” But then again, he observed, there is nothing in the statement about the Trinity, the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, the atonement, or sin and grace.
Is this the kind of creed which twentieth-century Presbyterianism will find sufficient as a basis for co-operation in evangelistic activities? Then it can get along in its evangelistic activities without the gospel. For it is precisely the gospel that this creed neglects altogether. Fellowship is a good word and a great duty. But our fellowship, according to Paul, must be in “the furtherance of the gospel.”
What in Warfield’s day was true of the attempts at uniting of the majority of mainline Protestants is in our day true of evangelicalism. The National Association of Evangelicals is united today by a statement of faith that affirms nothing that is distinctively evangelical (see www.nae.net/statement-of-faith). Although there are two points on the necessity of the Holy Spirit’s work in regeneration and sanctification (affirmed also by Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions), no mention is made of justification. Even where it agrees with the catholic consensus churches of the Reformation, it is superficial and inadequate in comparison with the ecumenical creeds.
None of this means that ecumenism is at an impasse. On the contrary, the honest recognition of remaining differences is the starting point for genuine dialogue. Ironically, at the very time that some evangelicals are disregarding central Reformation distinctives for a “let’s all get along” kind of ecumenism, many in the confessional Lutheran and Reformed traditions are revitalizing interest in being catholic (in the ecumenical, not Roman, sense), while also being more alert to any threat to central Reformation emphases.
Much of what has passed for ecumenism in evangelicalism over the past fifty years has been borne on the wings of neglect. We are now seeing the results of this neglect. On the Christian Left, moral, social, and political action, not the proclamation of Christ’s alien righteousness, seems now to be the church’s mission. Yet the same emphasis is found on the so-called Christian Right, with Müntzer-like insurrectionists storming the US Capitol carrying crosses and Bible verses taken out of context. Apart from the specific policy prescriptions, liberals and conservatives in the United States share the common legacy of Bonhoeffer’s assessment of “Protestantism without the Reformation.” May God grant a modern reformation.
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.