214. Are We Together? A Brief Response to Eduardo Echeverria

I thank Eduardo Echeverria for his book Are We Together? A Roman Catholic Analyzes Evangelical Protestants (Hobe Sound, FL: Lectio Publ., 2022) where he deals with my work and Gregg Allison’s writings on Roman Catholicism (RC). For an author it is always encouraging to find out that respected colleagues are interacting, albeit critically, with your research. Receiving pushback is also a welcome stimulus to address perceived weaknesses or real gaps or flaws in one’s own argument.

In this response I will not provide a comprehensive summary or review of the book, but instead will focus on what I think are its main critical (and weak) points. Not surprisingly, in a couple of reviews of the book that I read (on First Things by J. Daryl Charles and on Patheos by Anthony Costello) it was these critical points that attracted attention from the reviewers. In responding to Echeverria’s criticism, I hope to provide an instance of respectful dialogue that tries to understand what he is saying in the spirit of mutual correction under God’s Word. In my reading of his book, I think that the main issues at stake are the following:

1. Incommensurability?
Echeverria makes a great deal of the fact that my reading of RC is an instance of “meaning holism” (i.e. the language-system gives meaning to words and builds a closed frame of reference) that leads to the incommensurability between Catholicism and Protestantism. It is interesting that he uses a definition on “meaning holism” by Henry Jackman from an Encyclopedia of Philosophy and then sticks it to my work as if I would subscribe to it. I don’t and my work is far from it. For example, when I talk about “Revelation” I write that the Roman Catholic and the evangelical views “beyond some commonality” also carry “significant differences” (Same Words, Different Worlds, p. 32). There is commonality and there are differences. That means that the two views are comparable, that they have a degree of commonality in language and fundamental differences between them. Echeverria even quotes the above referred line (p.12), but he is so absorbed with his “meaning holism” that he does not see the point I am making: i.e. there is “some commonality”, and there are “significant differences”. The same is true as far as my critical reading of the Roman Catholic views of the cross, the Eucharist, unity, and Mary. I take the Roman Catholic position seriously (I hope) and see how it relates to the Evangelical one. Dr. Allison’s books on RC do the same thing for hundreds of pages covering all kinds of topics. Pace Echeverria, this is not “meaning holism” which posits incommensurability. RC and evangelicalism are indeed comparable, and, in my view, both should be subject to Scripture to ascertain their degree of faithfulness to God’s Word.

I think that from the outset Echeverria makes an epistemic faux pas by drawing a straw man (i.e. the “meaning holism” theologian), putting my name on the forehead, and then dismissing it. This is hardly compatible with basic scholarly practice. The problem is that he criticizes a position that I don’t hold to, and super-imposes it on my work with the effect of distorting what I plainly say. The issue is not that Catholicism and Protestantism are incommensurable; they are theologically different because their ultimate commitments are different. I try to argue that because the evangelical faith at its best is committed to Scripture alone as its ultimate authority, Roman Catholicism, while holding Scripture in high regard, is committed to Tradition which includes Scripture, but also exceeds it. This is why Roman Catholicism may use Biblical words (and indeed it does so!) but interprets it differently in all areas of Christian theology.

Our task as theologians is to clarify how it is possible that while using the same words, Roman Catholics and evangelicals end up in living in worlds that are seemingly similar, yet significantly different. My work is an exercise of comparative theology. Echeverria may legitimately disagree with my account of what the difference is and where it lies, but he should pay more attention to allowing me to speak in my terms rather than putting my work in the “meaning holism”-incommensurability box, which is not what I am doing.

2. Receptive Ecumenism?
Echeverria blames me for not practicing the kind of “receptive ecumenism” he advocates for, which would require participants to consider the various theological expressions as mutually complementary. He is right. I don’t practice this kind of “receptive ecumenism” because I consider RC as a biblically flawed system in need a reformation according to the Word of God. I don’t idealize evangelicalism, but at its best I consider it as being committed to the biblical gospel. Moreover, I don’t consider Roman Catholics, just because they are Roman Catholics, as “brothers and sisters” because I don’t believe that unity and fraternity are based on the sacrament of baptism (i.e. the view held by Rome, the World Council of Churches and that Echeverria makes his own, p. 179), but are gifts for believers in Jesus Christ.

I accept that Echeverria points to the fact that I don’t practice “receptive ecumenism”. What I find unsubstantiated is his claim that because my work does not fit the category of “receptive ecumenism” I must have no basis for engaging in ecumenical dialogue and am only driven by an attitude of antagonism and conflict (p.30). This is another faux pas. I have been involved in theological dialogues with Roman Catholic theologians for at least 25 years at local, national, and international levels in all kinds of contexts. I am part of theological discussions on an on-going basis in a friendly and respectful way. I am on friendly terms with many Roman Catholic theologians around the world. As far as I know this is also the case with Dr. Allison. Why then the dismissing of evangelical dialogue as an instance of emotional “anti-Catholicism” (p.179-183)?

Biblical unity does not equal Echeverria’s preferred option for “receptive ecumenism”. There are other ways of engaging dialogue. Having different theologies of unity does not entail being opposed to dialogue or cultivating a bitter spirit. It simply means accepting the fact that using the word “unity” or referring to our alleged “creedal basis” needs to be unpacked to see what it means and, more importantly, if it squares with biblical teaching. Outside of “receptive ecumenism” there is a world of biblically warranted possibilities to do theology at the service of evangelical unity.

3. No Grounds?
A final comment deserves to be made. After critically discussing the evangelical hermeneutics of Catholicism based on the Nature-Grace interdependence and the Christ-Church interconnection in chapters 4 and 5, Echeverria reaches the climax of his book when he writes “The two axioms of ‘nature and grace’ and the ‘Christ-church interconnection’ have no grounds as an interpretation of Roman Catholicism” (p. 172). No grounds? Apart from this dismissive statement sounding not in line with “receptive ecumenism” (what about the exchange of gifts? What about the dialogue of love?), it also looks overly proud and hastened. No grounds whatsoever?

On Nature and Grace there are entire theological libraries, and the motif has been considered an interpretative key of medieval, modern, and present-day Roman Catholic theology. Henri De Lubac[1] and Joseph Ratzinger[2] are just two examples of well-known contemporary RC theologians who underscore this point. It is one thing is to say “I don’t agree with your (De Chirico-Allison’s) account of the Nature-Grace interdependence and this is why”; but it is a very different thing is to say that Nature and Grace have no grounds for making sense of RC.

On the Christ-Church interconnection, again, it is neither myself nor Dr. Allison who claim its strategic role in the self-understanding of the Roman Catholic Church. It is a whole Roman Catholic theological tradition – from Johann A. Möhler[3] to Yves Congar[4] and beyond[5] – that has argued for it. I have simply taken notice of it. One could disagree with my study of it, but to dismiss it in its entirety seems a bit of a stretch.

After reading Echeverria’s book Are We Together?, I was encouraged to continue to work on an evangelical analysis of RC and do so in truth and love, as I have always tried to.

[1] e.g. his A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1984).

[2] e.g. his studies on the people of God in Augustine and the theology of history in Bonaventure: Volk und Haus Gottes in Augustins Lehre von der Kirchen (München: Karl Zink, 1954) and Offenbarungsverständnis und Geschichtstheologie Bonaventuras (1955). The English edition of both books can be found in his Opera Omnia (Freiburg, Basel, Vienna: Herder Verlag, 2011), vol. 1 and 2 respectively.

[3] “the visible Church […] is the Son of God himself, everlastingly manifesting himself among men in a human form, perpetually renovated, and eternally young – the permanent incarnation of the same”, Symbolism or Exposition of the Doctrinal Differences between Catholics and Protestants as Evidenced by their Symbolic Writings (London: Gibbings & Co., 1906) 259.

[4] “the idea of seeing in the church the extension of the Incarnation was recurring in catholic theology (Saint Thomas Aquinas, S. Francis de Sales, Bousset, Fénelon, etc.)”; “Dogme christologique et écclesiologie”, Sainte Église. Etudes et approches ecclésiologiques (Paris: Cerf, 1963) 70.

[5] See R. Baglioni, La chiesa “continua incarnazione” del Verbo: da J.A. Möhler al Concilio Vaticano II (Napoli: Editrice Dominicana Italiana, 2013).

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