20. Engaging in dialogue with Roman Catholic theologians.

Three lessons from two recent episodes

This month I have taken part in two important occasions of dialogue with Roman Catholic theologians and officials. The first setting was a theological conference where Evangelical and Roman Catholic theologians discussed the doctrine of Scripture. The topics were “Is the Bible the Word of God?” and “How does the Bible shape our lives?” and were addressed in a lively conversation. The second setting was an official dialogue between the World Evangelical Alliance and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Vatican department that develops relationships with non-Catholic Christians. The topic of this second consultation was “Scripture and tradition”, a long-standing issue since Reformation times.

I have observed our Catholic friends trying to learn from them. Here are the lessons that I found most intriguing. I think they well deserve to be digested by us Evangelicals.


Lesson 1: know your sources

In entering and dealing with theological conversation, the procedure of the Roman Catholic theologians was somewhat predictable. In terms of sources and basic theological framework they would start from the Second Vatican Council (in this case, Dei Verbum, the Vatican II constitution on the Word of God), then find some loose Biblical arguments and imagery in these magisterial teachings, referring then to more recent authoritative pronouncements by the Pope, or by a Pontifical Commission or by the 1992 Catechism. These theologians were all quite in line with the Roman hierarchy. Perhaps some fringe theologians would proceed in a different way, but as a matter of fact these representatives of the RC Church showed a degree of respectful familiarity with the foundational documents of their Church. They were able to quote from them and were steeped in them. The RC doctrines and traditions, its formulations, its complexities had forged them. They knew their sources.

As Evangelical theologians, how well do we know our sources? We presume we know the Bible, but what about the confessional heritage of Evangelicalism: its Patristic sources, its Reformation confessions, its Evangelical documents? How much are we at home in the homeland of the Protestant faith as we have received it? Can we grasp the doctrinal contours of our faith to the point of being able to show the biblical foundation, its doctrinal profile, its historical development and present-day outlook?


Lesson 2: carry your sources with you

The second lesson that I learned has to do with a practical habit with symbolic significance. They all carried with them a few items: the Enchiridion (i.e. a compendium of all basic texts of Catholic dogma and morality, otherwise known as Denzinger, its first editor in 1854), Vatican II texts and the collection of recent papal documents. Some also had the Bible. In approaching dialogue, they were all concerned to have the RC sources at their full disposal for quick reference and checking. It was a way for them to show that they were not improvising nor were they parroting, but that they were the living voices of a long tradition.

There is much to learn from this. Sometime we Evangelicals show a degree of superficiality in entering dialogue with RC theologians. They often perceive the Evangelical faith as if it were a vague spirituality without doctrinal content. Part of the problem is that we find it difficult to represent a living tradition subject to Scripture but aware of our background. When engaging in dialogue, I would suggest that we also need the Denzinger to make sure that we can refer to Post-apostolic and medieval pronouncements of the Church. Then we need to carry a volume of Protestant creeds and confessions of faith. Finally, I find indispensable the need to become familiar with at least two volumes:

  1. J.I. Packer – T.C. Oden, One Faith. The Evangelical Consensus (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2006). A presentation of the Evangelical faith through quotations from the Berlin Statement (1966), the Lausanne Covenant (1974), the Amsterdam Affirmations (1983), the Manila Manifesto (1989), The Gospel of Jesus Christ: an evangelical celebration (1999), and the Amsterdam Declaration (2000). Getting acquaintance with these sources will show that the Evangelical faith is the Apostolic faith, not a modern religious spirituality.
  2. John Stott (ed.), Making Christ Known. Historic Mission Documents from the Lausanne Movement 1974-1989 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997). Beginning with the Lausanne Covenant (1974) and ending with the Manila Manifesto (1989), this book include lots of “Lausanne Occasional Papers”. Absorbing these sources will show that our commitment to mission has deep theological roots, and is not just a child of an activist mentality.

Now that the Cape Town Commitment (2010) is also available, which Evangelical publishing house will accept the task of producing a book that includes all the major documents of present-day Evangelicalism? In Italy we have many needs as far as Evangelical books are concerned but we are privileged in another sense. We have in our hands the wonderful volume edited by Pietro Bolognesi, Dichiarazioni evangeliche. Il movimento evangelicale 1966-1996 (Bologna: EDB, 1997), with 38 Evangelical statements that was published by a RC publishing house in the same series of the papal documents! I wish that similar books would be produced in different languages.


Lesson 3: respect your sources

The final observation is about the general tone of these RC theologians. Originality did not appear to be their catchword, nor the search for creativity or relevance. Rather, their approach to theological dialogue with Evangelicals seemed marked by the awareness that the magisterium of the Church stands above them, asking them to defend it, to argue on its behalf, to listen to the interlocutor and to come close to him as much as possible, but not to the point of coming at odds with the received teaching. In trying to draft a joint-statement they attempted to find words and phrases that had already been used by RC documents or joint-statements with other confessional families.

As Evangelicals, we are less constrained by past renderings or formulations of our faith. Unlike Catholics, Scripture alone is our ultimate authority. Yet we need to come to terms with the fact that that our search for relevance or originality may become an idol if it is not governed by our primary desire to stay faithful to God’s Word and to respect those who have preceded us. It will be very unlikely that we come with a better version of what we already have. If that happens, we have to make sure that we know what our past and recent forefathers have already said before coming with our ideas.



Leonardo De Chirico


Rome, 26th September 2011

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