Christian Unity vis-à-vis Roman Catholicism: a Critique of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together Dialogue

“Christian Unity vis-à-vis Roman Catholicism: a Critique of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together Dialogue”, Evangelical Review of Theology 27:4 (2003) 337-352.

In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the Berlin Congress on mission (1966), a new season in ecumenical relationships was inaugurated between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics on a world-wide scale. Two main initiatives should be remembered: the «Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission» (ERCDOM),[1] which began after the publication of the encyclical «Evangelii Nutiandi» and the Lausanne Congress for World Evangelization (1974), and the on-going discussions between the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF) and the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity[2] which were prompted by the 1986 WEF document “Roman Catholicism. A Contemporary Evangelical Perspective”.[3] Apart from these international meetings, more locally-based encounters are mushrooming everywhere. Following centuries of controversy, Evangelicals and Catholics are learning the art of dialogue based on mutual respect. The new attitude to dialogue would seem to suit most Evangelicals though the most frequently heard voices come from the two opposite extremes of this broad consensus. While some are willing to go beyond mere dialogue to explore closer forms of unity with Catholics, others are reluctant to accept any form of dialogue because they deem that, in ecumenical jargon, dialogue is never mere dialogue but is based on the premise of a unity which already exists though it may be somewhat imperfect. The issue of Christian unity is at the centre of the debate while dialogue goes on at different levels. On the whole, the situation is extremely fluid and is an example of the wide variety of positions within Evangelicalism which can be seen in other areas as well. As the ecumenical issue becomes more and more important in future years, so Evangelical-Catholic relationships are bound to become a “hot potato” with external and internal repercussions. For Evangelicals, the issue of Roman Catholicism is closely linked to the issue of evangelical unity. The two issues are interwoven because the way they face the former calls into question the way they consider and experience the latter. The evaluation of the dialoguing process which started in the USA in the early Nineties is an interesting case-study in the present scenario and provides the opportunity for an evangelical reflection on Roman Catholicism.

1. “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT)

The 1994 «Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Toward a Common Mission» does not seem to be directly related to the above mentioned dialogues nor does it appear to be in any way connected to the institutions which had been involved up to that point.[4] The alleged reasons for ECT and the North-American context where it was conceived and drafted are decisive elements in discerning its theological thrust and ecumenical weight. The architects of the whole project make it clear that its immediate background is to be sought in the American socio-political scene of the Eighties. From their critical perspective, that decade witnessed a dramatic deepening of the chasm between opposing cultural forces in the American “public square”.[5] To put it simply, the fighting forces confronting each other were, on the one hand, those sections of society who wished to defend a Christian-based moral vision and social policy, and, on the other, the emerging, rampant segments who wanted to abandon the traditionally American ethos or radically rethink it in terms of postmodern, relativistic trends of thought. The range of battle fields was extremely diverse and included thorny issues like abortion, pornography, homosexuality, euthanasia, the nature and integrity of the family, education value-systems and basic social patterns. However, all these areas were thought of as being single instances of a violent “culture war” in which the basic orientation of individual and national life was threatened. In the midst of this dramatic confrontation in American society, and perhaps because of it and through it, some Evangelicals and Catholics found themselves fighting on the same side.[6] Their encounter began to take shape at grass roots level in the Seventies, especially in the pro-life movement, after centuries of mutual harsh polemics,[7] but the new element in the situation was that confessionally divided Christians were sharing religiously grounded moral convictions and wanted to engage more vigorously in the challenge of saving America from the disastrous results of relativism. The relationship between Evangelicals and Catholics which is contemplated in ECT is what Timothy George has called “an ecumenism of the trenches”[8] emerging from a common moral struggle against secular trends in American society and encouraging proclamation and implementation of Christian values at all levels.


1.1 The Issue of “Christian unity” According to ECT

ECT is of theological interest in that this kind of coalition is said to have a theological basis. ECT drafters and supporters appeal not only to a relatively similar evaluation of current social trends and to the shared core values advocated by some politically conservative Evangelicals and Catholics. They have no difficulty in claiming that the possibility, indeed the necessity, of co-operation between conservative Christians in the “public square” is primarily warranted by their theological common roots in spite of past and present confessional divisions. Sharing a political and moral agenda for society is a fruit of a “theologically rooted alliance”.[9] The connection between socio-political motives and theological justification for common action is also clearly visible in the order of the statement whereby the section “We Contend Together”, which is focused on “culture war” concerns, is preceded by the section “We Affirm Together” where a basic confession of faith is outlined, and then followed by the programmatic paragraph entitled “We Witness Together” where a qualified commitment to Christian mission is envisaged. In other words, according to ECT, contending in society is based on affirming gospel truth and is aimed at witnessing to the world. This basic theological core is the real centre around which ECT revolves, most particularly as far as its Evangelical signatories are concerned. From a post-Vatican II Catholic perspective, in fact, there is nothing exceptional in acknowledging together with other Christians, as ECT does, the existence of “common convictions about Christian faith and mission” which warrant the possibility for the dialoguing partners to consider each other as “brothers and sisters in Christ”. For Evangelicals, however, this ecumenical readiness has not been a feature of their history and practice, especially in relation to Catholics. If it is borne in mind that until the Sixties, “Protestant anti-Romanism” was a very influential staple in American Evangelicalism,[10] the committed language of togetherness, oneness, unity, co-operation which permeates ECT is much more telling than its ordinary usage in widespread ecumenical jargon. Evidently, in the case of ECT, the pervasive “We-Together” pattern is much more ecumenically significant than in other bilateral documents where it is often employed.[11]

The doctrinal basis for this evangelically discovered or catholically reaffirmed unity in the gospel is the Apostles’ Creed which both parties wholeheartedly indicate as being “an accurate statement of scriptural truth”.[12] The appreciation of this basic, albeit foundational, agreement does not eschew the frank assertion of “authentic disagreements”, “deep and long-standing differences”, “communal and ecclesial separations” which are barriers to full communion even between otherwise like-minded Evangelicals and Catholics.[13] ECT drafters also provide a non-exhaustive but substantial list of problematic areas which includes fundamental issues regarding the nature of the church and ministry, the authority of Scripture, the sacraments and devotion to Mary and the saints. According to ECT, these matters are not to be avoided or downplayed but fully debated and thoroughly researched. They are mentioned in the section “We Search Together” which is a further commitment on the part of the signatories to work and study side by side. The aim of such an informal, “disciplined and sustained conversation” is intended to be positive and constructive, that is “to strengthen between us a relationship of trust in obedience of truth”.[14] The non-confrontational line espoused by ECT is also visible in the expressed goal of nonproselytization between professing Christians and in the encouragement which the statement gives to focusing attention on the task of reaching those who are outside the broad community of faith instead of trying to convert who are already believers.

As to its significance for the present state and future development of Evangelical-Catholic theological debate, ECT is concerned with the legitimacy of the dialogue to be pursued rather than with its theological profile. As far as the latter goes, ECT does not tread any further than the mere listing of the often repeated cahiers de doléances, as if the diversity can be reduced to a more or less congruous enumeration of areas of doctrinal dispute. In fairness, it is perhaps arguable that the contingent socio-cultural motivations and preoccupations which were predominant in ECT’s background tend to allow the whole dialoguing process to be shaped by a sort of theological pragmatism and not by a willingness to come to grips with the basic issues which divide Evangelicals and Catholics.


1.2 The Spectrum of Evangelical Reactions to ECT

ECT’s Evangelical signatories reached far across the wide spectrum of present-day American Evangelicalism, though they participated in it strictly as individuals acting from and to their denominational or parachurch constituencies but not on behalf of them. While on the Catholic side, “relatively little commotion has resulted from the conciliatory statement”,[15] the American Evangelical world does not seem to have received it with the enthusiasm its promoters hoped for. Although sundry ecumenically-minded Evangelicals have accepted ECT quite positively, the release of the statement has produced much bewilderment and disarray especially in Reformed Evangelical circles.[16] The debate following it has exposed the serious rift within Evangelicalism on fundamental theological orientations and concerns, and not just over the issue of how to relate to Catholicism.[17] In Packer’s vivid words, ECT has inevitably come “under evangelical fire”[18] with “bleak, skewed, fearful, and fear-driven things”[19] being said about it. In spite of all their diversity, such negative critical judgements share some basic common strands which can be highlighted, varying from the claim that ECT jeopardizes the gospel to the charge that it betrays the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith,[20] it blurs the meaning of the word “Christian”,[21] it confuses Christian mission with a social agenda, it undermines evangelism in Catholic countries, and so forth. The scope and tone of the criticism has been so drastic and clear-cut because for many Evangelicals “no less than Christian theological integrity is thought to be at stake”.[22] Apart from strong opposition from individual theologians, journals and church leaders, even a highly representative Evangelical institution, WEF, which is itself carrying on an official dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, thought it appropriate to issue a “commentary on ECT” expressing perplexities on the document and distancing itself from the initiative as a whole.[23] More specifically, WEF refuses to link a commendable “ecumenism of the trenches” as far as culture war is concerned to the possibility for Evangelicals and Catholics to do evangelism and mission together when “the doctrinal differences … remain unresolved”. Furthermore, WEF underlines the semantic problem together with the interpretative issue involved in joint statements such as ECT whereby “the use of common language does not mean that the meanings are the same”. In other words, the mere act of subscribing a declaration is no indication of a genuinely recovered unity if each party attributes substantially different nuances to the agreed text.

Another significant response to ECT has come from an authoritative Evangelical parachurch agencies, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE). In reacting to ECT not only in negative terms but with the desire to suggest basic guidelines for subsequent Evangelical-Catholic discussion, ACE issued seven “Resolutions for Roman Catholic and Evangelical Dialogue”.[24] While questioning ECT’s purported creedal unity, the “Resolutions” affirm that “this catholic consensus” over the ecumenical creeds is not perceived “as a sufficent basis for declaring that agreement exists on all the essential elements of the Gospel” (1). According to ACE, this kind of confessional unity could be found only when the other essential tenet of the Gospel is included, that is “justification by faith alone” without which the “adequacy of any version of the Gospel” is deemed as falling short. As for this pivotal doctrine, “radical disagreement continues” between Evangelicals and Catholics (2). Creedal consensus as advocated by ECT, however, warrants “the making of common cause on moral and cultural issues in society” though this cooperation should not be regarded as a “common ecclesial action in fulfilling a common ecclesial mission” (4). While rejoicing in the awareness that “the Roman Catholic Church contains many .. believers”, ACE states that as an ecclesial institution, it is not “an acceptable Christian communion, let alone being the mother of all the faithful” (6). On the whole, then, ECT has stimulated much discussion and has provided an occasion for Evangelicals to reflect afresh on the issue of Roman Catholicism and on the wider stance of Evangelicalism in the present-day ecumenical scene.


2. “The Gift of Salvation” (GOS)

In the intention of the drafters, the ECT document was conceived as an initial step in the deeping of a mutual commitment to dialogue between its Evangelical and Catholic contributors. The negative appraisal of some Evangelicals on the main tenets of the statement apparently strengthened the conviction that there was a need for further conversations, especially on the weaker, problematic areas which had come under strong criticism. Further reflection ought to be aimed at a fuller exploration of the theological connotations and a more adequate articulation of this fundamental thrust of ECT. The first result of this continuing and more sharply focused debate was a shorter document released in November 1997 under the title of «The Gift of Salvation».[25] Sponsored and led by the same authors as ECT, namely Charles Colson and Richard Neuhaus, GOS stems from the continuation of the process initiated by ECT and can be thought of as being an elucidation of the controversial section “We Affirm Together” of the previous document. The filial connection with ECT is also evoked when GOS is sometimes called ECT II.


2.1 Unity and Justification by Faith in GOS

As has already been suggested in the section on ECT, the real gain of the whole ecumenical process which resulted in ECT according to its supporters was considered by some Evangelical critics to be its fatal flaw. Expressing a trenchant comment often repeated in Evangelical reactions to ECT, Sproul asks whether Evangelicals have the right to root an alleged confessional unity apart from, besides or beyond an unambiguous agreement on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Granting the decisive importance of sola fide in historic Protestantism and noting the noisy silence in ECT over it, Sproul defines it “the missing doctrine” of the statement.[26] In his view, its omission either means that ECT does not perceive justification by faith to be an essential aspect of the Christian faith or that the long controversy over it between Evangelicals and Catholics has now been resolved. It is clear that both assumptions are not feasible and this omission can only be explained in terms of ecumenical diplomacy. The train of Sproul’s argument goes as far as to say that this kind of apparent neutrality or wilful bypassing fudges the whole effort and empties the statement of any ecumenical credibility. At this point, Sproul voices a conservative evangelical quasi-consensus in holding that without coming to terms with sola fide, that is without a full acceptance of the protestant doctrine of imputed righteousness on the Catholic side, even speaking of “unity” is a sheer impossibility, given the corner-stone role of justification in protestant Evangelicalism especially in relation to or against the catholic understanding of it which was framed at Trent. In light of this opinion shared by many Evangelical critics of ECT, Christian unity cannot be attained at the expense of the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone because without this doctrine there is no evangelically interpreted Christian gospel. Taking these reservations seriously into account, ECT drafters eventually decided to engage in the debate precisely over the crucial issue of sola fide. In this way, they wished to demonstrate that the kind of ecumenism favoured by the participants is an “ecumenism of conviction”, not one of “accommodation”[27] as was charged against the vagueness of ECT on various matters. Given this background, justification by faith comes to the fore as the obvious doctrine on which dialogue must concentrate if it is to go beyond socio-political concerns. The outcome of such an ecumenical endeavour is that, while restating with ECT the confession of a “common faith in Christ” and the acknowledgement of “one another as brothers and sisters in Christ”, GOS strives to deepen the theological quality of the professed unity after addressing the core soteriological issue of the Reformation. If ECT confessed unity on the basis of the Apostles’ Creed, GOS claims that it is also possible to envisage “a common understanding of salvation”, including an agreed version of sola fide. With this development, the ECT process has gained a theological merit, in its supporters’ opinion, in that the unity expressed in GOS is “not indeed unity in every aspect of the gospel, but unity in its basic dimension”[28] which bridges the confessions of faith of the undivided church and that of contemporary American conservative Christianity without ignoring the doctrinal specificity of the historic protestant tradition.

Rather boldly and with a hint of triumphalism, after outlining the content of the accord over salvation, GOS states that what has been affirmed “is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide)”. In view of such a statement, it should not be a surprise to read that, according to the signatories, “for the first time in 450 years, Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics have publicly agreed to a common understanding of salvation”.[29] Without making any reference to the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue nor to any other relevant ecumenical document on the same doctrine, these claims sound rather curious because they give the impression of a major breakthrough of historical importance achieved through an informal, unofficial and relatively short dialogue culminating in the release of a concise text. Reflecting on the ecumenical ethos of the whole initiative, it can be argued that the sort of pragmatic ecumenism resulting in ECT seems to have also operated in GOS with a certain measure of consistency. Apparently, the vaguely protestant outlook of the statement is moderated by the eloquent underestimation of the concept of imputation. The newly discovered possibility of confessing together “fundamental truths about the gift of salvation” goes hand in hand with the awareness of “some serious and persistent differences” between the Evangelical signatories and the Catholic ones on specific details or broad frameworks related to the doctrine itself which require “further and urgent exploration”. Among these “necessarily interrelated questions” there are “the meaning of baptismal regeneration, the Eucharist and sacramental grace, the historic uses of the language of justification as it relates to imputed and transformative righteousness” and “the normative status of justification in relation to all Christian doctrine”.

On the whole, then, while testifying to a further advancement along the path of an “ecumenism of conviction” than ECT was able to express, GOS is also in itself an interlocutory step. Its theological import is partially invalidated by its rather naïve approach to the controversy over sola fide which  is a highly complex matter. In Sproul’s telling words, “the ECT initiative is seriously, if not fatally, flawed since it proclaims too much way too soon”.[30] Another point underlined by some GOS Evangelical signatories is that the professed unity testified to in the statement is a bond between “some Roman Catholics and some evangelicals”, not implying at all “a unity of faith with the church of Rome”.[31] The level of brotherly recognition concerns individual believers involved in the process while no recognition of that kind is extended to Catholicism as an ecclesial institution. As Gerald Bray puts it, “one of the most painful parts of the ECT dialogue has been the need for Evangelicals to explain to the Catholics involved that we cannot regard the Roman Church in the way that a Baptist might look at Presbyterians. There is a qualitative difference between us”.[32]


2.2 Evangelical Criticism of GOS

As it might be expected, in spite of the good wishes of the promoters, GOS is facing nontheless the negative responses of the same strands of the Evangelical movement which reacted negatively to ECT. The tone of many appraisals sounds very similar to previous verdicts, including the charge of selling out the Reformation and of being a “disappointing sequel” to ECT.[33] As for the merits of the document, the main reservation advanced by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE) is that GOS fails “adequately to express the essential Protestant understanding of the gospel” in that it does not grapple with the concept of imputation.[34] What GOS does is to indulge in “ambiguous expressions” which are perfectly compatible within a Roman Catholic perspective. The blatant paradox seen by ACE is that “while ECT expressed concern over the relativization of truth in our day it has led in GOS to a relativizing of the most important truth of all, namely, the Gospel itself”. The problem of ambiguity is also evoked by Sproul, for whom GOS was drawn up with a “studied ambiguity by which agreement is reached in words but not in substance, leaving each side the opportunity to maintain its original position”.[35] Moreover, given the admission found in GOS of a “serious and persistent” difference on the language of imputation (which is inseparably linked to the concept of imputation), what is presented as an agreement on justification by faith as the protestant traditions understood it, is not sola fide but, at best, a limited version of it, if not a deformation of it. In this train of evaluation, GOS only affirms “ingredients” of sola fide, not sola fide itself. Of course, this criticism is mainly addressed at Evangelical participants who have presented the common declaration in a much more positive way. As for Catholic signatories, their unwillingness to embrace sola fide wholeheartedly is thought of as being perfectly legitimate from their point of view.

The question of how to approach Roman Catholicism is another area which has not seen any significant development. GOS, like ECT, appears to espouse an isolated, atomistic, fragmented way of conducting the conversation which seems to overlook the fact that doctrines are parts of a coherent system and that the difference between Evangelical and Catholic views of justification lies in the central core of their respective understandings of the reality of God’s saving work. In Sproul’s words, “the differences are systemic, not partial; they are radical, not slight”.[36] Applying these critical remarks to GOS, it can be said that “from an evangelical point of view, it is practically meaningless to uphold together with Catholics the doctrine of justification by faith, on the one hand, and express a sharp disagreement on «baptismal regeneration», «the Eucharist», «sacramental grace», «diverse understandings of merit, reward, purgatory, and indulgences», «Marian devotion and the assistance of the saints», etc., on the other. Unlike the Catholic one, the evangelical framework cannot tolerate such diversity and calls for a choice”.[37] In other words, an appreciation of the sharp edges of the evangelical doctrinal system should go together with an awareness of the open-ended and rounded shape of the Catholic one. The latter can subsume the former, provided that it renounces its sharpness, while the former cannot blunt itself to be a part of the latter, lest it lose its distinct adherence to the exclusivenness of the gospel. The acknowledgement of this basic contrast between the respective doctrinal systems should inform all theological discussions with Roman Catholics. GOS lacks a theologically “integrated approach” in dealing with the doctrine of justification by faith because it severs it from the whole of the biblical message and does not show a satisfactory degree of acquaintance with the Catholic synthesis which is unpalatable for Evangelicals. If this is the case, GOS achieves far less than is claimed by its proponents. Furthermore, because of its basic methodological and theological weakness, as a model for ecumenical dialogue with Catholics it is bound to be ambiguous and, in the end, unfruitful. The kind of dialogue Evangelicals should aspire to needs to be more historically conscious, theologically careful and ecumenically alert than their contributions to both ECT or GOS have been.


3. “The Gospel of  Jesus Christ” (GJC)

The process which has led from ECT to GOS has shown that while confronting Roman Catholicism, Evangelicals reflect and act upon their own identity. The question of how to deal with Roman Catholics can be answered only after one has tackled what does it mean to be an Evangelical. Differences in the area of ecumenism generally reflect divergences in understanding of what is constitutive for the evangelical faith. It should not be surprising therefore that after having ventured in conversations with Catholics and received some negative reactions from within the movement, the Evangelical promoters and their critics have come back to the issue of evangelical doctrinal identity, and inevitably so. This pause in evangelical reflection on the ecumenical process has given birth to «The Gospel of Jesus Christ. An Evangelical Celebration»[38] which is a basic statement on the evangel nurtured by strong evangelical convictions and aimed at a broad evangelical consensus, beyond past and present contrasts on ecumenical initiatives.


3.1 The Evangel as the Basis of Unity

GJC is meant to be a “celebration” of the gospel, a brief dogmatic outline of the content of the biblical message expressed in a rather doxological vein. A part from this general thrust, the main emphasis of the document revolves around the doctrine of justification by faith, its place within the evangelical confession of the gospel and its theological articulation vis-à-vis recent disputes within Evangelicalism itself. If GOS pointed the way to a possible convergence between Evangelicals and Catholics on justification which was criticised by some Evangelicals, GJC spells out the basic and shared evangelical understanding of the same doctrine. The paramount desire is to stress the forensic view of justification and this is achieved by the insertion in the text of a list of synonymous verbs or nouns when the meaning of justification is sketched out. So, it is said that “God «justifies the wicked» (ungodly: Rom 4:5) by imputing (reckoning, crediting, counting, accounting) righteousness to them”. Later GJC speaks of “the doctrine of the imputation (reckoning or counting) both of our sins to Christ and of his righteousness to us” (12) and of Christ’s righteousness which is “counted, reckoned, or imputed to us by the forensic (that is, legal) declaration of God” (13). All the semantic tree of the forensic language of justification is employed to focus on the declarative dimension of the act of justification. Another related concern is the willingness to underline what happens in justification in terms of a “decisive transition, here and now” and “transaction”. Of course, though unmentioned, the distinct protestant perspective on justification with its anti-Roman Catholic overtone is clearly in the background of such statements. Other aspects of the evangel are not as emphasised as justification by faith alone[39] but, in light of the history and purposes of GJC, the insistence on “sola fide” should not be taken as un underestimation of necessarily related truths concerning God’s saving work. Since every text has its context, GJC has its own in the debate over justification which ECT and GOS gave rise to.

It is too early to evaluate the reception that GJC will receive in Evangelical circles, in particular whether or not it will fuction as an adequate basis for drawing together Evangelicals who have different ecumenical sensitivities. It is certainly true that the only hope for Evangelicals to strive for unity is to appreciate the core of their faith. In the light of internal disputes over ecumenical issues, the message of GJC seems to be: back to square one, back to the evangel.


3.2 The Affirmation/Denial Pattern

After the introductory preamble, two paragraphs on “the Gospel” and “Unity in the Gospel” and before the final section on “Our Commitment”, the rest of GJC is construed using a composite pattern whereby affirmations concerning various constitutive elements of the evangel are followed by denials of possible misunderstandings or incompatible statements with the previously asserted truths. The rationale behind such a procedure seems to imply that the act of affirming something is only one side of the task related to the spelling out of the evangelical doctrinal identity. The other unavoidable aspect has to do with denying what is perceived as being contrary to what is positively affirmed. The gospel can be witnessed to propositionally by way of positive assertions and negative derivations. In contemporary history of confessional declarations, this pattern has noble precedents in the Barmen Declaration (1934) and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978). The model reflects the evangelical logic of theologizing, in which affirming something implies negating what is not in line with what has been affirmed. What is even more important is that the wise combination of “yes” and “no” is particularly vital for Evangelicals as they confront the ecumenical movement in general and Roman Catholicism in particular. This procedure is very far from the ecumenical (or catholic!) pattern in which two or more parties can uphold something together but are not costrained to work through the implications of what they have affirmed in an evangelically coherent way. Moreover, as will indicated later, the Catholic epistemological framework is characterised by a comprehensive et-et (both-and) pattern which enables it to hold together things which are different. The introduction of the “denial” element in GJC contrasts with this Catholic sensitivity towards the catholicity of doctrine. A Catholic theologian would perhaps subscribe to the “affirmation” sections of GJC but would feel extremely uncomfortable, if not totally uneasy, with the “denial” parts, especially nn. 1, 12, 13, 14 on issues like the authority of the church, justification as infusion of righteousness, the role of works and human cooperation with grace. Unlike ECT and GOS, GJC goes in the right direction in stressing the essential link between the “yes” and the “no” of the gospel evangelically interpreted. The misunderstanding caused by the previous documents should teach an important lesson in this respect, that is the need for Evangelicals to relearn to say their evangelical “no” (together with the “yes”, of course!) in ecumenical encounters when the truth of the gospel is under scrutiny. “No” is part of  their theological identity just as much as “yes” and makes it possible to avoid dangerous ambiguities. The hope is that the content, the pattern and the ethos of GJC will prove to be an useful reference point for future evangelical endeavors in the ecumenical scene.


4. Roman Catholicism, Evangelical diversity and witness

The ECT process, which has culminated thus far in GJC, indicates that Evangelicals, if they need to refine their interpretative categories in dealing with Roman Catholicism and to reassess their stance towards it, also need to reflect on their own identity. What is urgent then is an appreciation of what is fundamentally at stake between Evangelicalism and Catholicism as systems of thought, beyond mere polemical attitudes, historically entrenched suspicions, psychological bitterness or theological caricatures.[40]


4.1 The Catholic System is Eclectic by Definition

Although there is considerable diversity in its forms and expressions, Roman Catholicism is also a basically unitary reality because its underlying tenets hold together a magnificient cathedral of thought and life. While the thomistic motif of nature and grace is the basic feature of its worldview, the Roman Church, considered as the continuation of the incarnation of Christ, is its institutional centre. It is vital to bear in mind the fact that Catholicism is a multifaceted system where worldview and institution coinhere and foster its vision. If this is forgotten, it is easy to misrepresent its essence, goals and means. Any analysis of Roman Catholicism which does not take into account this systemic approach will easily fall prey to a superficial and fragmented understanding.

As a consequence of its system, Roman Catholicism appears to have no sense of the tragedy of sin, tends to encourage an optimistic view of man’s abilities, sees salvation as a gradual process in which nature is made more perfect, justifies the Church’s role as a mediator between man and God and enhances her prerogatives to achieve an ever increasing catholicity of doctrine and practice. Because it coordinates nature and grace without a tragic doctrine of sin, the Catholic system is characterised by an attitude of overall openness. It is inherently dynamic and comprehensive, capable of embracing doctrines, ideas and practices that in the Evangelical tradition are thought of as being mutually exclusive. By way of its inclusive et-et (both-and) epistemology, in a Catholic system two apparently contradicting elements can be reconciled into a synthesis which entails both and which safeguards the institutional unity.[41] In principle, the system is wide enough to welcome everything and everyone, not always appreciating the fact that biblical truth is also exclusive and demands integrity. From a Catholic point of view then, affirming something does not necessarily mean denying something else but simply enlarging one’s own perspective on the whole (i.e. Roman Catholic) truth. In this respect, what is perceived as being important is the integration of the part into the catholic whole by way of relating what is newly affirmed with the already existing body of truths. The essential criterion is not that of Evangelical purity or Christian authenticity but that of a progressive inclusion, that is the insertion of the particular into a broader perspective which eliminates its specificity by dissolving it in the service of universality. This means, for instance, that, in catholic eyes, a rather generic protestant view of the doctrine of justification is perfectly compatible with the traditionally catholic synergistic view of salvation; the use of terms such as “grace”, “faith”, “assurance” is always strictly correlated (though not always explicitely stated) to the Catholic sacramental system so that the word “sin” is used in the context of a more optimistic anthropology, etc. Examples of the way in which catholic presuppositions govern the understanding of biblical and theological language could be easily multiplied. In this respect, what is expressed in GOS is fully acceptable to Catholics without altering the catholic system in any significant way. It is a further addition to it but it does not question it. It is a contribution to it but it does not detract anything from it. This is possible because the catholic system allows, indeed demands, “aggiornamento”, that is integration without structural reformation.


4.2 The Catholic Ecumenical Strategy is Unequivocably Inclusive

The overall openness is not indiscriminate syncretism or relativism. From the Second Vatican Council onward, the Catholic Church has been undertaking an impressive process of redefining what used to be its merely polemical stance towards non-catholic confessions into a more dialoguing attitude. This paramount shift has been legitimated by the theological recognition of the existence of “sister churches” and “separated brethren” as well as finalised to their integration into the fully catholic communion. Since then, the promotion of several ecumenical initiatives on different levels has been a dominant feature of the catholic agenda. In all its extraordinary activism, Rome has attempted to expand its catholicity which has vast borders but a definite centre, multiple objectives but a distinct project. The Holy Year of 2000 is seen as a “providential” opportunity to enhance further this kind of ecumenical trend which will present the Catholic church as the only institution which, on the eve of the third millennium, can claim historical continuity, structural unity, sacramental fullness and ever increasing universality. As already noted, in the Roman Catholic understanding catholicity has to do simultaneously with unity and totality. The basic premise is that multiplicity should be brought into a unity and the Roman Church is seen as an expression, a guarantor and a promoter of the true unity of all mankind. As long as the institutional structure which preserves unity remains intact and is recognised for what it is supposed to be, everything can and must find its home somewhere within the kingdom of Catholicism. The distance from the centre is not so important as the acknowledgement that it is the centre.

In light of these remarks, Catholic efforts in ecumenism ought to be taken as stemming from this catholic vision of bringing together the whole of humanity around the institutional centre of the Roman Church. This is another aspect which Evangelicals should bear in mind while dialoguing with Catholics. Roman Catholic unity is never institutionally (i.e. Roman Church) free but aspires at increasing the catholicity of that institution without changing its fundamental features in an evangelical sense.


4.3 Evangelical Diversity with Respect to Roman Catholicism

In a recent comparison of  GOS and the Catholic Catechism on justification, Daryl Charles has stated: “Like Hodge and Spurgeon, contemporary Evangelicals face a similar dilemma: recognition that current Roman Catholic dogma acknowledges the same saving realities as Protestants affirm, even when they conceptualize and speak of them differently”.[42] Leaving aside the (im)plausibility of the reference to Hodge and Spurgeon as sharing the present-day need for evangelical discernement on Roman Catholicism,[43] the sentence well captures the common ecumenical idea that what is at stake between Evangelicals and Catholics is a matter of divergence in patterns of conceptualization or uses of language granted that the soteriological substance is the “same”. Against this well established view in ecumenical circles, the systemic analysis of Roman Catholicism would urge Evangelicals to rethink the “qualitative difference” in terms of a fundamental cleavage between the two systems. Although there are many differences between the Roman Catholic and the Evangelical faith at various levels, they are all inter-connected and, in the last analysis, stem from a radically different basic orientation which informs all their expressions. It is a difference which cannot simply be explained in psychological, historical or cultural terms, nor does it derive from different doctrinal emphases which could somehow be complementary in the catholic synthesis. The difference is at the level of presuppositions, that is in the basic apprehension of the way in which grace sustains and redeems creation. This is not a matter of nuances or details but of doctrinal substance and broader structures of thought. There can be, as there are, many differences in terms of language, concepts, practices, etc. but these are all dimensions not roots or causes of the fundamental difference. It is important not to confuse the phenomenology with the aetiology of the differentiation. Given the systemic chasm, the difference is noticeable in any point.

Even the doctrinal agreement between Catholics and Evangelicals, which is expressed in a common adherence to the Creeds and Councils of the first five centuries, is not an adequate basis on which to say that there is an agreement concerning the essentials of the gospel. Moreover, developments within the Catholic Church during the following centuries give rise to the suspicion that this adherence may be more formal than substantial. The same should be true as for the agreements between Evangelicals and Catholics when it comes to ethical and social issues. There is a similarity of perspective which has its roots in “common grace” and the influence on culture which Christianity has generally exercised in the course of history. Since theology and ethics cannot be separated, however, it is not possible to say that there is a common ethical understanding in that the underlying theologies are essentially different. As there is no basic agreement concerning the foundations of the gospel, even in ethical questions there may be affinities though these appear more formal than substantial.

So what is the fundamental difference? By way of introduction and preliminary consideration, it can be said that is has to do with the way in which nature and grace are related. The biblical teaching re-discovered during the 16th Century Reformation regarding the “sola, solus” of the gospel is a crux which sheds light on this fundamental contrast. Scripture alone, Christ alone, Grace alone, Faith alone, to God alone be glory, these together constitute not only the essential theological profile of the Evangelical faith but also examples of the basic divergence with respect to Roman Catholicism. The “sola, solus” point to the way in which the fallen creation of God receives the saving grace of God in Christ through the Spirit. While through the “sola, solus” Evangelicals affirm the sovereignty of God in creation, providence and redemption in contrast with man’s hopeless in sin, Catholicism continues to think of nature as essentially capable of receiving and cooperating with grace. This is evident in that Roman Catholicism adds to Scripture the authority of tradition and magisterial teaching; to Christ it has added the Church as an extension of the Incarnation; to grace it has added the necessity of the benefits which come through the sacramental office of the church; to faith it has added the necessity of good works for salvation; to the worship of God it has added the veneration of a host of other figures which detract from the worship of the only true God. This is true of tridentine Catholicism as well as of post-Vatican II Catholicism because that basic nature-grace motif is inherent to the Roman Catholic system. In this respect, the exclusiveness of the Evangelical faith concerning the essential elements of the Gospel must be seen as an alternative to the all encompassing synthesis  proposed by Catholicism.

Of course, what is true of the Catholic Church as a doctrinal and institutional reality is not necessarily true of individual Catholics and Evangelicals should be always ready to make that distinction. God’s grace is indeed at work in men and women who, although they may consider themselves Catholics, trust in God alone for their life and salvation. These brothers and sisters in the Lord must be nonetheless encouraged to examine critically residual Catholic elements in their thinking and life in the light of God’s Word alone.


4.4 Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Witness

In the fulfilment of the cultural mandate there may be co-operation and united action between Evangelicals and Catholics, as in fact may be possible between Evangelicals and people with other religious orientations and ideologies. Where common values are at stake in ethical, social, cultural and political issues, forms of co-belligerence are to be encouraged anywhere and at anytime. These necessary and inevitable forms of co-operation, however, must not be perceived as ecumenical initiatives, nor must they be deemed as implying the recovery of a doctrinal consensus which is not the case. It is one thing is to argue for co-belligerance in terms of “common grace” and on the basis of the influence of Christian values in different groupings around the world, it is an altogether different thing to warrant that co-operation in terms of “Christian unity” which presupposes unity in the gospel. Moreover, the fulfilment of the missionary mandate demands instead that its missionaries come from the community of believers who are united in a common confession of faith regarding all the fundamental aspects of the gospel, especially the crucial points which concern the five “sola, solus” of the Reformation. In this sense, all evangelistic activity in which there is a co-operation between Catholics and Evangelicals must be seriously questioned and re-examined. In this respect, Francis Schaeffer’s wise distinction between being “cobelligerents” and “allies” is fully applicable to the Evangelical-Catholic relationship in the XXI century as it was for the church at the end of the XX century.

Roman Catholicism is a reality which must be grappled with, today even more seriously than ever. The basic difference between Catholicism and the Evangelical faith is no reason for Evangelicals to ignore the internal developments within Catholicism, or to cultivate an arrogant attitude, or to be exclusively polemical. As much as is possible an open and constructive interaction with Catholicism should be sought, especially when it concerns the basic orientation of the respective systems of doctrine and life. In the present ecumenical scene, Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism are the two religious constituencies within Christendom which, more than others, are showing signs of activism and renewal. Willy-nilly, Roman Catholicism is a reality so pervasive and comprehensive that can neither be ignored nor by-passed. Mutual indifference is not a viable option whereas unity is not feasible nor is it foreseeable because of the persistent “qualitative difference”. Co-operation in the public arena is possible given the proper theological framework and especially in those countries where traditionally Christian values are subjected to a heavy assault. Dialogue, frank dialogue, ought to be pursued: a sort of dialogue without ecumenical overtones which simply expresses the evangelical desire to love one’s neighbour, Roman Catholics included, and to witness to the saving grace of Christ alone in today’s world.


[1] B. Meeking, J. Stott (eds.), The Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission 1977-1984. A Report, Exeter, Paternoster 1986.

[2] The proceedings of the two meetings can be found in ERT 21:2 (1997) and 23:1 (1999).

[3] ERT 10:4 (1986) and 11:1 (1987).

[4] Colson and Neuhaus explicitly say that the talks leading to ECT were “independent of the official conversations between the Roman Catholic and various evangelical Protestants bodies”; C. Colson, R. Neuhaus (eds.), Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Toward a Common Mission, Dallas, Word 1995, xiii.

[5] This kind of approach can be found, for instance, in R. Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans 1984; C. Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict, Dallas, Word 1987; K. Fournier, A House United? Evangelicals and Catholics Together, Colorado Springs, NavPress 1994.

[6] The different stages of the history of ECT are summarized in C. Colson, R. Neuhaus (eds.), cit., x-xiii.

[7] Cf. M. Noll, “The History of the Encounter: Roman Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals” in C. Colson, R. Neuhaus (eds.), cit., 81-114. Cf. also R. Nash, “Evangelical and Catholic Cooperation in the Public Arena” in J. Armstrong (ed.), Roman Catholicism. Evangelical Protestants Analyze what Divides and Unites us, Chicago, Moody 1994, 181-197.

[8] T. George, “Catholics and Evangelicals in the Trenches”, Christianity Today (May 16, 1994) 16-17.

[9] Colson, “The Common Cultural Task” in C. Colson, R. Neuhaus (eds.), cit., 3.

[10] Noll, cit.

[11] Sproul reports that, according to Richard Neuhaus, this affirmation is “at the core of the entire document”, R.C. Sproul, By Faith Alone. The Doctrine that Divides, London, Hodder & Stoughton 1996, 15.

[12] ECT, Colson-Neuhaus (1995) xix.

[13] Idem, xx-xxii.

[14] C. Colson, R. Neuhaus (eds.), cit., xxi.

[15] D. Charles, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: one year later”, ProEcclesia V:1 (1996) 73.

[16] Cf., for instance, J. MacArthur, Reckless Faith, Wheaton, Crossway Books 1994; J. Ankerberg, J. Weldon, Protestants and Catholics. Do they now agree?, Eugene, Harvest 1995; R. Zins, Romanism, Huntsville, White Horse Publ. 1995; J. McCarthy, Conversations with Catholics, Eugene, Harvest 1997.

[17] For a survey of Evangelical reactions, cf. N. Geisler, R. MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals, Grand Rapids, Baker 1995, 491-502 and D. Charles, cit.

[18] J. Packer, “Crosscurrents among Evangelicals” in C. Colson, R. Neuhaus (eds.), cit., 149. In this paper, Packer assesses and responds to the evangelical criticism of ECT. On Packer’s involvement in the ECT process, cf. A. McGrath, To Know and to Serve God. A Biography of J.I. Packer, London, Hodder & Stoughton 1997, 264-275.

[19] J. Packer, “Why I signed it”, Christianity Today (Dec 12, 1994) 34.

[20] R.C. Sproul, By Faith Alone, cit., 10-30 and 152-155; P. Eveson, The Great Exchange. Justification by Faith Alone in the Light of Recent Thought, Bromley, Day One Publ. 1996, 89-96.

[21] I. Murray, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: A movement of watershed significance?”, The Banner of Truth, 393 (1996) 12.

[22] D. Charles, cit., 74.

[23] J. Vencer, “Commentary on ECT” in H. Fuller, People of the Mandate. The story of WEF, Carlisle-Grand Rapids, Paternoster-Baker 1996, 191-193. The next two quotations are taken from the same article.

[24] Modern Reformation (July 1994) 28-29. It is perhaps worth noticing that Jim Packer signed both ECT and these Resolutions.

[25] The GOS text was originally published in Christianity Today (Dec 8, 1997) 34.

[26] R.C. Sproul, By Faith Alone, cit., 22-24.

[27] These expressions are employed by T. George, T. Oden, J. Packer, “An Open Letter about The Gift of Salvation”, Christianity Today (April 27, 1998) 9.

[28] Ibidem.

[29] As reported by R. Frame, Christianity Today (Jan 12, 1998) 61.

[30] R.C. Sproul, “What ECTII Ignores. The inseparable link between imputation and the gospel”, Modern Reformation (Sept/Oct 1998). In the same respect, Neuhaus writes that “the Lutheran formula of simul iustus et peccator, which was Rome’s chief objection to JD (Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration), is no part of «The Gift of Salvation»”, First Things 86 (Oct 1998) 82. Neuhaus too recognises that the central issue of the Protestant-Catholic divergence on the doctrine was untouched by GOS.

[31] T. George, T. Oden, J. Packer, cit. – italics in the original.

[32] G. Bray, “Editorial”, Churchman 113 (1999) 197.

[33] Zins, cit., 255.

[34] “An Appeal to Fellow Evangelicals. The Alliance Response to the second ECT document The Gift of Salvation” (1998).

[35] R.C. Sproul, “What ECTII Ignores”, cit.

[36] R.C. Sproul, Getting the Gospel Right. The Tie that Binds Evangelicals Together, Grand Rapids, Baker 1999, 86.

[37] “The Gift of Salvation. A Reflection by IFED”, unpublished paper (1999). Part IV of this article is also indebted to it.

[38] The GJC text was published on Christianity Today (Jun 14, 1999) 51-56. R.C. Sproul provides an useful, article by article, commentary in Getting the Gospel Right, cit.

[39] In a brief letter Cornelius Plantinga, John Stackouse and Nicholas Wolterstorff, amongst others, have expressed reservations on the fact that GJC seems to refer to justification at the expense of sanctification, thus failing to represent a real evangelical consensus; cf. Christianity Today (Oct 4, 1999) 15.

[40] The following paragraphs are based on a statement issued by IFED and endorsed by the Italian Evangelical Alliance, “Orientamenti evangelici per pensare il cattolicesimo”, Ideaitalia III:5 (1999) 7-8.

[41] Classical protestant (read: neo-orthodox) works that deal with these aspects of Catholicism are those by Vittorio Subilia, Il problema del cattolicesimo (E.T. The Problem of Catholicism, London, SCM 1965) and La nuova cattolicità del cattolicesimo, Torino, Claudiana 1967.

[42] Daryl Charles, “Assessing Recent Pronouncements on Justification: Evidence from “The Gift of Salvation” and the Catholic Catechism”, Pro Ecclesia (1999).

[43] Hodge and Spurgeon do not seem to share the same dilemma if their positions on Catholicism are considered more fully. Hodge’s critique is epitomized in his 1869 “Letter to pope Pius IX”, The Banner of Truth 415 (1998) 22-25 written on behalf of the two General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. As for Spurgeon, cf. the anthology edited by T.F. Kauffman, Geese in Their Hoods. C.H. Spurgeon’s Writings on Roman Catholicism, Huntsville, White Horse Publ. 1997.


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