178. Why J.I. Packer Signed “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (1994) (and Why He Was Inconsistent)

The global church owes a debt of gratitude to James I. Packer (1926-2020). Together with giants of the caliber of Carl Henry (1913-2003) and John Stott (1921-2011), during the second half of the 20th century he has embodied Evangelical theology at its best, especially on issues like the authority of Scripture, penal substitutionary atonement, the interplay between theology and spirituality, the connections between the historical church (especially the Puritans) and our time, and the call to holiness. His lucid and profound writings have nurtured at least two, if not three generations of Evangelicals and challenged them to stay faithful to the historic biblical faith. Together with millions of Christians, the reading of Knowing God as a young believer was a milestone in my life. I consider Jim Packer to be a “father” of present-day Evangelical theology, along whose trajectory I also wish and hope to be identified.

This is to say that if I dare critique one minor – albeit significant – instance of his theological involvement, I do so out of immense respect and hopefully with a similar courtesy that characterized Packer in his own way of handling controversy.

It is no secret that in Packer’s theological biography his involvement with the Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiative has puzzled many of his admirers. How such a solid theologian could be prone to sign theologically blurred documents and encourage confusing ecumenical activities has been a standing question in many people’s minds. The purpose of this article is to discuss the reasons why Packer signed ECT and to offer some critical remarks in considering them.

Part of ECT Since Its Beginnings
“Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT) is the title of a document released in 1994, but it is also the name of an on-going informal dialogue that has been taking place in the US context ever since. Initiated by Chuck Colson and Richard Neuhaus, it gathered Christians who are confessionally divided but who share similar concerns for the falling apart of the Christian ethos of American society under the attack of relativistic trends of thought. In this violent “culture war”, Evangelicals and Catholics found themselves fighting on the same conservative side and discovered a new kind of possible rapprochement, “an ecumenism of the trenches”. The convergence, however, is not simply a common view on social issues, but is said to be “a theologically rooted alliance”. Thus, the ECT section “We Contend Together”, which is centered on “culture war” issues, is preceded by the section “We Affirm Together”, where a basic confession of faith is reported. This is followed by the programmatic section “We Witness Together”, where a common commitment to Christian mission is envisaged, entailing the goal of non-proselytization between professing Christians (thinking especially of Latin America in areas of tense relationships between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals). The “We-Together” pattern is pervasive in ECT and contains the indication of a significant shift in the Evangelical perception of Roman Catholicism.

I have explored elsewhere the historical context and the theological flaws of the ECT initiative, i.e. “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. There is no need to repeat such an assessment. On the whole, ECT sentimentalizes the sense of “togetherness” at the expense of theological clarity and confuses the necessity of co-belligerence on moral and social issues with a call to unity and common mission between Evangelicals and Catholics. These two faults are serious matters. For the purpose of this article, what is striking to observe is the active participation of Jim Packer in the whole of the ECT initiative thus far. His signature appears at the end of all ECT documents up to 2012: “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (1994), “The Gift of Salvation” (1997), “Your Word is Truth” (2002), “The Communion of Saints” (2003), “The Call to Holiness” (2004), “That They May Have Life” (2006), “Do Whatever He Tells You: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life” (2009), and “In Defense of Religious Freedom” (2012). While other Evangelical signatories have come and gone, appearing and disappearing (some perhaps feeling perplexed about ECT over time), Packer has been a faithful and convinced supporter of ECT. Why is it so?

“Why I Signed It”
Of course, the participation of Jim Packer in the ECT initiative has stirred much controversy among Evangelicals from the very first day, especially as far as his endorsement of the first two statements are concerned: “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (1994) and “The Gift of Salvation” (1997). The criticism after the first statement led him to write an article entitled “Why I Signed It” (Christianity Today, 12 Dec 1994, pp. 34-37) to respond to it. His reasons are worth considering because they unfold Packer’s approach to issues broadly related to unity and cooperation.

After expressing surprise “at the violence of initial Protestant reaction”, Packer states what he considers possible and feasible: “I have long thought that informal grassroots collaboration with Roman Catholics in ministry is the most fruitful sort of ecumenism that one can practice nowadays”. Notice three points:

  1. The level of collaboration he envisaged, i.e. grassroots, informal, and personal, rather than institutional and ecclesiastical.
  2. The partners involved, i.e. individual Roman Catholics rather than the Roman Catholic Church as such.
  3. The type of relationship with Roman Catholics, i.e. collaboration understood as a form of “ministry” and “a sort of ecumenism”.

Then Packer goes on by arguing why “the Roman system” is “unacceptable”. He is aware that Roman Catholicism is an integrated whole that is “theologically flawed”, especially because it misconceives the nature of the Church, blurs justification by faith, and attaches infallibility to church pronouncements. As a matter of fact, “Protestant and Catholic church systems stand opposed”. Packer shows awareness of the systemic nature of Roman Catholicism, its unbiblical tenets, and its opposed stance with regards to the Evangelical Protestant faith. In an interview a few years later, Packer argues: “Roman Catholicism as a system has defined itself in a way which is out of step with the Bible on a whole series of key issues relating to the Christian life and faith and it defined itself irreformably” (“Discipline of Debate”, Evangelicals Now, Nov 2000, p. 13).

Having said that, in the “Why I Signed It” article Packer thinks that “good Protestants and Catholics are united in the one body of Christ”. As already seen, Packer distinguishes between individual Catholics and the Catholic Church. If the Roman Church as system is “unacceptable”, who are these “good Catholics”? They are “Bible-believing, Christ-honoring, Spirit-empowered Christians who will together resist the many forms of disintegrative theology – relativist, monist, pluralist, liberationist, feminist, or whatever – that plague both Protestantism and Catholicism at the present time”. In other words, they are “spiritually alive” and theologically conservative Catholics.

In the second part of the article, Packer recalls three recent examples of collaboration between Evangelicals and Catholics preceding ECT and therefore paving its way forward:

  1. Francis Schaeffer’s “co-belligerence” on the abortion front, which saw Evangelicals and Catholics working side by side;
  2. Billy Graham’s cooperative evangelism, which included churches of whatever stripe; and
  3. The Charismatic get-togethers where the distinction between Protestants and Catholics vanished.

In light of these precedents, in Packer’s view ECT should be considered a legitimate and timely development that tries to formulate “at the level of principle a commitment which many have already entered at the level of practice”. Packer is aware of the need to further reflect on the issue. This is the reason why, at the end of the article, he makes reference to a study document, i.e. “Resolutions for Roman Catholic & Evangelical Dialogue” (Modern Reformation, 1994), drafted together with Michael Horton to provide some “agenda suggestions” for the future. With the help of this seven-point document – which Packer takes credit for (“drafted by Michael S. Horton, revised by J.I. Packer”) – we shall now evaluate his own reasons for signing ECT and for being involved in the whole ECT initiative. The assessment will try to be fair to Packer’s theological criteria as they are presented in these “Resolutions”.

Why Was He Inconsistent?
As I wrote in the introduction, I consider Packer a giant of present-day Evangelical theology, from whose scholarship and spirituality we all have a great deal to learn. Still, I think that his “ecumenical” involvements have shown a significant weakness in his overall premier theological stature. His own “Resolutions” show a degree of inconsistency between what he affirms there and what he did in and through ECT.

Point N. 1 of the “Resolutions” clearly argues that “while both Evangelicals and Roman Catholics affirm the ecumenical Creeds, we do not see this catholic consensus as a sufficient basis for declaring that agreement exists on all the essential elements of the Gospel”. While much of the ECT initiative makes a great deal of the alleged “common creedal basis” between Evangelicals and Catholics, Packer here readily acknowledges that whatever we can make of that supposed commonality, it does not show that the two constituencies adhere to the same Gospel. Point N. 6 clearly denies that “in its present confession (the Roman Catholic Church) is an acceptable Christian communion”. The alleged “consensus” between Evangelicals and Catholics is not on the “essential elements of the Gospel”, but ECT argues the contrary. The Packer of the “Resolutions” is in conflict with the Packer of ECT.

Point N. 2 stresses the crucial importance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. “While gladly noting in modern Roman Catholic exposition a growing emphasis on Christ and the biblical promises as objects of faith and trust, we see justification by faith alone as an essential of the Gospel on which radical disagreement continues, and we deny the adequacy of any version of the Gospel that falls short at this point”. This is the historic Evangelical position. Unfortunately, Packer signed in 1997 the ECT “The Gift of Salvation” document which, without recanting Trent and the traditional Roman Catholic teaching on justification, says that the controversy on it is over. There is a clear contradiction between what he wrote in the “Resolutions” and his signature under the ECT text.

Point N. 3 points out that “we radically disagree with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that unbelievers may be saved by their good works, apart from faith in Christ”. Fair enough, but this teaching was endorsed by John Paul II and especially Pope Francis, under whom the whole ECT initiative has taken place. This non-biblical teaching of Rome is another blow to the ECT claim that Evangelicals and Catholics can affirm together enough of the Gospel to be united in common mission.

Point N. 4 argues that while common causes on moral and cultural issues in society are warranted, “it is incorrect to regard such cooperation among Christians as common ecclesial action in fulfilling a common ecclesial mission”. The “Resolutions” argue that cooperation is one thing, mission is another. As Francis Schaeffer pointed out, while “co-belligerence” is possible among people of various persuasions, Gospel “mission” is only possible among believers in Jesus Christ on the basis of the Gospel. The two must be theologically and missiologically distinguished. However, the ECT documents commonly confuse and blur them. Even Packer conflates the two in his “Why I Signed It” article when he speaks of “collaboration”, “ministry”, and “ecumenism” interchangeably, as if they are the same (which they are not). This is perhaps one of the most negative long-term effects of the whole ECT initiative, i.e. blurring the language of Christian unity and Gospel mission by confusing co-operation in social and cultural battles with unity in Gospel mission. In this respect, Packer has not properly helped Evangelicals to discern the issues at stake. His widely acknowledged precision in theological language was not consistently practiced in ECT.

Point N. 5 underlines the Evangelical passion for Christian unity according to the Gospel. In this respect, it stresses the fact that “we deny that the defined doctrines of the church’s infallibility, Papal primacy, justification according to Trent, transubstantiation and eucharistic sacrifice, and the immaculate conception and assumption of Mary, can be proved from Scripture, and we cannot accept any form of action that appears to imply agreement with them”. Therefore, visible unity is not possible not only with the institutional Roman Catholic Church, but also with people who are convinced of these non-biblical doctrines. This message is very different from the ECT type of ecumenism that Packer has been involved in, with staunch and devout Catholics who are 100% traditional Catholics in all of these non-biblical doctrines.

Point N. 6 expands what Packer does mean when he refers to “spiritually alive” individual Catholics. “We affirm that individual Roman Catholics who for whatever reason do not self-consciously assent to the precise definitions of the Roman Catholic Magisterium regarding justification, the sole mediation of Christ, the relation between faith and the sacraments, the divine monergism of the new birth, and similar matters of Evangelical conviction, but who think and speak Evangelically about these things, are indeed our brothers and sisters in Christ, despite Rome’s official position”. It is striking to notice that all Roman Catholic signatories of ECT (e.g. Avery Dulles, Richard Neuhaus, Thomas Guarino) do not fit this category! They are all 100% convinced of every bit of Roman Catholic teaching (including the non-biblical parts) as it is officially defined. They are fully orbed Roman Catholics: papal, Marian, Tridentine, Vatican I and Vatican II Roman Catholics. They are not Roman Catholics “despite Rome’s official position”, but wholehearted defenders of it. They may “sound” Evangelical in certain respects, but they are fully Roman Catholic in all respects. ECT was not signed with “creative” Catholics, nor with Catholics critical of certain aspects of their church. When ECT speaks about unity and common mission it does so together with people who identify as 100% Roman Catholics, without any uncertainty about their Roman Catholic identity. Here Packer’s inconsistency with his own criteria is again evident.

Wrapping up the evaluation, it is fair to hear Packer again. In defending his involvement in ECT he wrote: “We do not seek Christian unity at the expense of Christian truth” (T. George, T.C. Oden, J.I. Packer, “The Biblical Gospel”, First Things, June/July 1998, p. 9). Elsewhere, he again wrote that his efforts were of the sort of “an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation” (“An Open Letter About the Gift of Salvation”, Christianity Today, 27 April 1998). This is all true. However, there were unrealistic evaluations and wrongheaded applications in his own dealings with Roman Catholicism. In the whole area of how to relate the Evangelical faith with conservatives of other Christian traditions (i.e. Anglo-Catholics, Roman Catholics, traditional Eastern Orthodox), he has not been a reliable guide for Evangelicals.

The Packer who helped Evangelicals to see and appreciate “the logic of penal substitution” did not help them to see “the logic of Christian unity” in the same helpful way. On the latter he was inconsistent to say the least. The Packer who so helpfully unpacked the riches of an Evangelical “systematic spirituality” did not help to appreciate its implications in the area of ecumenism. He was rather eclectic on the latter. While we celebrate the bountiful Evangelical legacy of Jim Packer in the desire to follow his steps, we should also be aware of his weaknesses, especially when he tried to work out what the Lord Jesus meant when he prayed “that they may be one” (John 17:21).

118. Salvation Belongs to the Lord. Evangelical Consensus in Dialogue with Roman Catholicism

December 31st, 2015

Published on “Evangelical Review of Theology” 39:4 (2015) pp. 292-310.

The cry of the prophet Jonah in the big fish is an affirmation that expresses the biblical Gospel in a nutshell (Jonah 2:9). In the midst of despair and powerlessness, the rebellious prophet cries to the Lord in repentance and faith, and acknowledges that he finds himself in a deadly “pit” and that God is the only Savior to call for rescue. “Salvation belongs to the Lord” is Jonah’s final word of his prayer and is also the summary of the biblical message. At least, this is how Evangelicals perceive it, articulate it and experience it. Jonah’s statement touches the heart of the Evangelical faith: the need for a lost man to be saved and the prerogatives of God in granting salvation. This twofold emphasis on man’s need and God’s gift is worked out in Evangelical theology and life in such a way that it becomes a distinctive element of the Evangelical faith itself and also a meaningful point of conversation with other Christian traditions.

This paper will seek to explore the Evangelical doctrinal emphasis on salvation by showing its long historical trajectory and theological significance, allowing respected Evangelical voices to lead the argument.[1] The Evangelical consensus, which is reflected in the corpus of present-day Evangelical statements (mainly from the Lausanne Movement), will be used as exemplar of the general agreement that exists amongst Evangelicalism. Then, the paper will turn to make reference to three recent Evangelical – Roman Catholic dialogues that have touched on the doctrine of salvation and will try to highlight some of the key questions that come to the fore that, in turn, will hopefully serve as points for further discussion.

I. Salvation as a Broad, Yet Defining Evangelical Identity-Marker

What is salvation and how to receive it is a central concern of the Evangelical faith. Dealing with salvation, in all its theological, experiential, evangelistic and symbolic connotations, leads to the very heart of what Evangelicalism is all about. In Packer’s words, “Evangelicals have always seen the question of salvation as one of supreme importance, and their witness to the way of salvation as the most precious gift they bring to the rest of the church. This conviction rests not on the memory of the conversion of Paul or Augustine or Luther or Wesley or Whitefield or any other evangelical hero, but on the emphasis with which the Bible itself highlights salvation as its central theme”.[2]

In Packer’s view, both the Evangelical understanding of the thrust of the biblical message and the main feature of its historical development as a movement are the focus of salvation. More than anything else, Evangelicalism is a “redemptive” religion. All the different ways to describe Evangelicalism, no matter how many different angles and emphases they may cover, recognize in one form or another the centrality of salvation as a major, defining concern of the “evangel” from which Evangelicalism derives. “Eternal salvation through personal trust in Christ” captures the gist of the Evangelical faith.[3] According to Carl Henry, the “evangel” itself can be evangelically defined as “the momentous Biblically-attested good news that God justifies sinners who for spiritual and moral salvation rely on the substitutionary person and work of Jesus Christ”.[4] This definition of the Gospel needs some theological unpacking because it is framed with Evangelically distinctive language, but nonetheless shows the organic relationship between the Gospel itself and the Evangelical insistence on salvation. So, a certain understanding and experience of salvation lies at the heart of what Evangelicals have been standing for throughout the centuries.

I.1 The Biblical scope

Salvation is one of the key-terms of the Bible’s soteriological vocabulary and Evangelicals are prone to emphasize this fact. Furthermore, salvation represents a wide semantic field that denotes the multifaceted, yet unitary redemptive purpose of the Triune God in history.

The Biblical terms of jāshaʿ (hiphil) and mālat (piel) in the Hebrew Bible and sôzō and sōtēría in the New Testament form the soteriological perimeter which describes God’s saving action for his people and for the world as a whole.[5] While the Old Testament words stress God’s intervention to rescue from oppression, fear, sin and guilt, the New Testament terms refer to the person and work of Jesus Christ who, as the Incarnate Son of God, crucified and risen from the dead, saves from God’s judgment and delivers from evil. In the whole Bible, the accent of salvation is placed on God and his saving initiative centered on the once-and-for-all death and resurrection of Jesus, whereas man is considered lost and is the recipient of God’s salvation. Salvation is a broad category which is organically connected to other terms which enrich the soteriological vocabulary of the Bible. A whole cluster of related terms of the Christian life (e.g. grace, redemption, justification, rescue, being washed, healing) revolve around the terms and concepts and experiences of salvation.

The specific purpose of this paper is to touch on the Evangelical understanding of God’s salvation. In his usual neat and profound language, John Stott provides a useful summary of how Evangelicals perceive and articulate the rich Biblical account of salvation:

“What then is salvation? It is a great word. It urgently needs to be set free from those narrow concepts to which it has often been reduced. Salvation is not a synonym for forgiveness. It is bigger and broader than that. It denotes God’s total plan for man, and it includes at least three phases. Phase one is our deliverance from the guilt and judgment of our sins, our free and full forgiveness, together with our reconciliation to God and our adoption as His children. Phase two is our progressive liberation from the downdrag of evil, beginning with our new birth into the family of God and continuing with our transformation by the Spirit of Christ into the image of Christ. Phase three is our final deliverance from the sin which lingers both in our fallen nature and in our social environment, when on the last day we shall be invested with new and glorious bodies and transferred to a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Further, these three phases, or tenses, of salvation (past, present and future) are associated in the New Testament with the three major events in the saving career of Jesus, His death, His resurrection and subsequent gift of the Spirit, and His return in power and glory. Paul calls them justification, sanctification and glorification”.[6]

From Stott’s summary salvation appears to have a threefold significance: a legal dimension whereby the person is freed from the guilt of sin and justified by grace, a transformative dimension whereby the person experiences conversion into the new life and becomes part of the people of God, and an eschatological dimension whereby the effects of sin will be eventually wiped out and the shalom of God will reign forever. Here the Evangelical mainstream appreciation of salvation begins to take shape and is the background of many Evangelical accounts of what it means to be saved by God.

I.2 The “Grace Alone, Faith Alone” Trajectory

One of the claims of Evangelicalism is that, while being conscious of being historically and spiritually situated, it does not represent a new religious Christian movement, but stands within the orthodox historical tradition of the Christian church. Again Stott is helpful here when he argues that Evangelicalism is not “a new-fangled ‘ism’, a modern brand of Christianity, but an ancient form, indeed the original one”.[7]

This claim can also be applied to the account of salvation that has been briefly sketched out. While certainly being influenced by the theological debates at the time of the Protestant Reformation and by the spiritual ethos of various subsequent Revivals, the Evangelical theology of salvation can be traced first and foremost to the Bible, and secondly to the long trajectory of Christian thought. In describing the theological roots of the Evangelical view of salvation, Gerald Bray argues that it is especially dependent on Augustine’s doctrine of sin and grace as well as his own paramount experience of conversion as narrated in his Confessions, and on Anselm’s satisfaction theory of Christ’s atonement as argued for in the book Cur Deus Homo?[8] From the former (Augustine), later Evangelical theology draws from the insistence on God’s gracious initiative and man’s total inability, due to his sin, to cooperate in salvation. Because salvation is a free gift of God from beginning to end, our boast lies in God alone. From the latter (Anselm), it further elaborated the doctrine of penal substitution in accounting for Christ taking the place of sinners on the cross. By his death Jesus atones for our sin and restores us to God. He died in our place, bearing the penalty for our sin.

While it can be argued that this is a selective appropriation of the Christian tradition, it must nonetheless be recognized that it is not simply a new post-Reformation development in Christian theology. There is an “evangelical” thread running throughout all of Church history of which Evangelicals are legitimate interpreters. Reflecting on the “evangelical consensus” of the doctrine of salvation, Packer and Oden argue that it is “the Christ-centered story of redemption that earlier creeds and confessions also told”.[9] In this respect, Evangelicalism is nothing but “a version of catholic Christianity, to be acknowledged and assessed as such”.

While acknowledging the organic Evangelical relationship with earlier accounts of salvation, it is valid to say that the Protestant Reformation was a pivotal phase in shaping subsequent and present-day Evangelical soteriology. Evangelical theology is rooted both in the “formal principle” of the authority of Scripture and in the “material principle” of justification by faith alone interpreted extensively to include the broader historic Protestant soteriology.[10] Salvation plays a defining role in the fabric of Evangelical theology. More specifically, Evangelical theology of salvation is an offspring of the four solus, sola (sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura, solus Christus) which were defended by Luther and by the Protestant Reformation as a whole.[11]

All these sola, solus have a driving soteriological concern. The Holy Scripture is the final authority by which the Gospel of salvation can be known, not in isolation from tradition but above all traditions. Christ is the only mediator between God and man and the only Savior. Divine grace is the only grounds of salvation, thus nullifying human merit. In order to be saved and have the assurance of salvation, faith alone is the only sufficient response. Human contribution can therefore play no part. The sola, solus of the Reformation sketch a distinctive soteriological framework that is decisive for Evangelical theology.[12] The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which are the capstones of our salvation, take center stage. Post-Reformation Evangelical theology as a whole can be thought of as being an outworking of the message of “the cross of Christ”.[13]

Within this soteriological framework there have been and can be variations – even significant ones – on how to relate the sovereignty of God and man’s responsibility (predestination and free will), or the proclamation of the Gospel and the role of the sacraments, or the various components of the ordo salutis and their mutual connections, or the position of the individual saved and the involvement of the Christian community. These and other issues have been and continue to be hotly debated between different traditions in Evangelical theology. But the soteriological scheme of the Reformation with its focus on God’s grace and the sufficiency of the once-and-for-all saving work of Jesus Christ is the common ground for all Evangelical accounts of salvation.

I.3 The Evangelical Message and Experience of Salvation

“Saved from sin; saved by grace; saved through faith, saved for God’s glory” is a way to reaffirm the Reformation heritage of the message of salvation.[14] Yet, the Evangelical theology of salvation is further enriched by the insistence on the personal need for salvation and the personal responsibility to respond to God’s grace in repentance and faith. The Gospel is both an announcement of God’s intervention to save and a summons to respond with faith. In David Bebbington’s terms, “conversionism” (together with Biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism) captures the heart of Evangelicalism in that it recognizes the centrality of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ resulting in forgiveness of sin and a changed life.[15] The Reformation doctrine of salvation based on Solus Christus is matched with the Revivalist emphasis on the reality of personal conversion.

Jesus’ injunction to Nicodemus “You must be born again” (John 3:7) becomes paramount for each and every man. Regeneration through conversion is the necessary threshold for salvation and is achieved by the Holy Spirit through the preaching and witness of the Gospel to which men respond in repentance and faith.[16] Salvation does not come by simply being born into a Christian family, nor from being part of a Christian environment. Not even being a formal member of a Christian church, nor having received a sacrament of Christian initiation, earns salvation. It is not by merit, it is not by works, it is not by tradition, it is not by sacraments: it is by grace alone through conversion to Jesus Christ.

The personal experience of salvation marks the Evangelical approach to salvation and to the Christian life. “Evangelicals are those who preach the same gospel, of punctilliar conversion and immediate assurance available through faith alone”.[17] This is not to suggest, however, that Evangelicals are prone to look for a single pattern and timing of conversion. In this respect, Runia correctly says that, “When it comes to the ‘form’ of conversion, there are some differences of opinion among Evangelicals (is conversion instantaneous, so that one can mention time and place, or is it more in the nature of a process?), but generally Evangelicals do not prescribe a particular method or a particular manifestation. The emphasis is on the fact of conversion, not on its particular form”.[18] Most Evangelicals can identify with the words of John Newton (1725-1807) who in his world famous hymn Amazing Grace could write: “I once was lost, but now am found / Was blind but now I see”. Personal stories may vary considerably, but they are all characterized by a personal conversion which can be recounted in a personal biography. Evangelicalism is a conversionist Christian tradition and every Evangelical Christian is taught to be always ready to give her/his personal “testimony”, i.e. an account of her/his conversion.

The objective message of the cross is the legacy of the sola, solus principles of the Reformation. Together with the personal experience of salvation, they form the foundation of much Evangelical preaching of the Gospel, especially of those sermons that came out of the different revivals of post-Reformation history. Again Packer and Oden are helpful here when they write that “Evangelicalism characteristically emphasizes the penal-substitutionary view of the cross and the radical reality of the Bible-taught, Spirit-wrought inward change, relational and directional, that makes a person a Christian (new birth, regeneration, conversion, faith, repentance, forgiveness, new creation, all in and through Jesus Christ)”.[19] John 3:16 is the single Bible verse where the Gospel of God’s salvation and man’s responsibility to believe are masterfully condensed. Evangelicals champion, memorize and extensively use John 3:16 in their spiritual pilgrimage and personal evangelism.

In the long trajectory of Evangelical history, modern revivals have put an emphasis on personal conversion as the necessary step towards salvation. The stress on conversion has also strongly influenced the Evangelical preaching of the Gospel that invites people to repent from sin, believe in Jesus as personal Savior and Lord, and be saved, urging people to respond and to go through a conversion experience. The “sinner’s prayer” – “Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be” – captures an important feature of contemporary Evangelical accounts of the presentation of the Gospel of salvation and the expectations it produces.[20]

In the 20th century, the global evangelistic ministry of Billy Graham well epitomized a variant of this inherent combination between the objective (the cross of Christ) and the subjective (personal conversion) sides of salvation. The basic threefold structure of Graham’s message (i.e. the human problem; God’s solution; the way forward), as it is exemplified in his widely circulated book Peace With God, reflects shared patterns of the Evangelical way of understanding and presenting the message of salvation.[21] The sheer fact that in his 60 year-long career Billy Graham has preached the Gospel live to more than 210 million people in 185 different countries of the world, and that it is estimated that nearly 3 million people have responded to Jesus Christ by faith, are in themselves remarkable markers of his Evangelical zeal for spreading the message of salvation. This is also recognized and respected by critical voices that advance more or less legitimate criticism of various aspects of his ministry.[22]


II. Salvation as Affirmed in the Consensus of Present-Day Evangelicalism

The broad picture that has been painted regarding the basics of the Evangelical account of salvation shows that, in spite of the significant historical, doctrinal, denominational and sociological differences that the movement reflects within itself, it is indeed possible to grasp a sufficiently unitary and coherent theological map of Evangelical soteriology, at least in its essential theological contours. The “evangel” of God’s salvation in Christ to a lost world is the common ground of Evangelicalism.

This theological assessment is further corroborated by the reference to various statements and documents that stem from present-day Evangelicalism. In fact, for the past fifty years different Evangelical networks and circles (from the 1966 Berlin Congress on Evangelism[23] to the 2010 Lausanne III Congress on World Evangelization held in Cape Town) have been producing a manifold corpus of declarations, covenants, manifestos, commitments, etc. that together constitute an important reference point for our purposes. This material shows a significant and comprehensive degree of “transdenominational evangelical consensus” across the whole spectrum of the Christian faith, written mainly in a declaratory way and with an unmistakable Evangelical missional tone.[24]

Within this broader set of documentation, the Lausanne Movement has played a leading role in helping post World War II Evangelicalism learn to appreciate its own Gospel-centered unity and to speak with one voice on the missionary nature of the church and the missionary task for the whole world by the whole of God’s people.[25]

The analysis of this vast material could push the paper beyond its proper limits. Let us suffice it to select some of the most significant statements on salvation and point to some of their underlining concerns. One preliminary remark is that the accounts of salvation offered by these documents are given in the context of the wider rubric of evangelism and world mission. Their primary focus is missiological.

II.1 The Lausanne Covenant (1974)

The Lausanne Congress for World Evangelization in 1974 is perhaps the most significant event of 20th century Evangelicalism. Under the joint leadership of Billy Graham and John Stott, it was the first Evangelical conference that reflected the global nature of Evangelicalism and the growing importance of the Global South, together with re-launching the missionary task of the church in terms of evangelism and social responsibility. As far as the relationship with the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, the Lausanne Covenant should be read together with the 1975 Apostolic Exhortation of Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi, which expresses similar missiological concerns.

Here are some significant Lausanne texts on salvation:

“To proclaim Jesus as ‘the Saviour of the world’ is not to affirm that all people are either automatically or ultimately saved, still less to affirm that all religions offer salvation in Christ. Rather it is to proclaim God’s love for a world of sinners and to invite everyone to respond to him as Saviour and Lord in the wholehearted personal commitment of repentance and faith” (n. 3)


“To evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that as the reigning Lord he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gifts of the Spirit to all who repent and believe. Our Christian presence in the world is indispensable to evangelism, and so is that kind of dialogue whose purpose is to listen sensitively in order to understand. But evangelism itself is the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God. In issuing the gospel invitation we have no liberty to conceal the cost of discipleship. Jesus still calls all who would follow him to deny themselves, take up their cross, and identify themselves with his new community. The results of evangelism include obedience to Christ, incorporation into his Church and responsible service in the world” (n. 4)

“The goal should be, by all available means and at the earliest possible time, that every person will have the opportunity to hear, understand, and to receive the good news” (n. 9).

The mainstream Evangelical position is affirmed by Lausanne. Both the proclamation of the historic message of the cross of Christ and the urgency to invite everyone to respond to it is a pressing concern. The “cost” of conversion is mentioned (against the option of easy-believism) and the incorporation into the Church is referred to as a natural result of conversion, yet without any indication of the Church’s sacraments.

II.2 The Manila Manifesto (1989)

The Second Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization took place in Manila in 1989. The outcome of the conference was a longer text than that of the Lausanne Covenant and has been given the name The Manila Manifesto. It should be read in cross-reference with the 1990 Encyclical Redemptoris Missio by John Paul II.

Here are some significant texts:

“We affirm that on the cross Jesus Christ took our place, bore our sins and died our death; and that for this reason alone God freely forgives those who are brought to repentance and faith” (n. 6).

“We affirm that the Holy Spirit’s witness to Christ is indispensable to evangelism, and that without this supernatural work neither new birth nor new life is possible” (n. 10).

(5. God the Evangelist) “The Scriptures declare that God himself is the chief evangelist. For the Spirit of God is the Spirit of truth, love, holiness and power, and evangelism is impossible without him. It is he who anoints the messenger, confirms the word, prepares the hearer, convicts the sinful, enlightens the blind, gives life to the dead, enables us to repent and believe, unites us to the Body of Christ, assures us that we are God’s children, leads us into Christ-like character and service, and sends us out in our turn to be Christ’s witnesses. In all this the Holy Spirit’s main preoccupation is to glorify Jesus Christ by showing him to us and forming him in us… Every true conversion involves a power encounter, in which the superior authority of Jesus Christ is demonstrated. There is no greater miracle than this, in which the believer is set free from the bondage of Satan and sin, fear and futility, darkness and death”.

At Manila the Reformation “material principle” was clearly reaffirmed with a stress on the penal substitutionary view of the atonement. The other emphasis was on the role of the Holy Spirit in the salvation process, from the preaching of the Gospel to its acceptance in conversion and the resulting Christian life. In this way, Manila welcomes the Pentecostal insistence on the work of the Spirit, but places it in the context of classical Reformation theology of salvation.


II.3 The Amsterdam Declaration (2010)


Born as the result of an International Conference of Preaching Evangelists (sponsored and lead by Billy Graham), the Amsterdam Declaration is an affirmation of Evangelical convictions for the New Millennium aimed at nurturing the vision for world mission and personal evangelism.[26]


“Salvation. The word means rescue from guilt, defilement, spiritual blindness and deadness, alienation from God, and certainty of eternal punishment in hell, that is everyone’s condition while under sin’s dominion. This deliverance involves present justification, reconciliation to God and adoption into his family, with regeneration and the sanctifying gift of the Holy Spirit leading to works of righteousness and service here and now, and a promise of full glorification in fellowship with God in the future. This involves in the present life joy, peace, freedom and the transformation of character and relationships and the guarantee of complete healing at the future resurrection of the body. We are justified by faith alone and the salvation faith brings is by grace alone, through Christ alone, for the glory of God alone” (Definition 7)


Amsterdam stresses the sinfulness of man and therefore echoes the anthropological pessimism of much of the Evangelical tradition. Hell is also cited as the “condition” for unsaved sinners to be in. The twofold temporal dimension of salvation – i.e. present: justification, reconciliation, adoption, regeneration, sanctification, transformation and future: full glorification – is referred to. The statement ends with a strong affirmation of the sola, solus of the Reformation.


II.4 The Cape Town Commitment (2010)

The last Evangelical global statement is the result of the third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization that took place in Cape Town in 2010. For the first time, a congress of this size and scope happened without the direct participation of the two main Evangelical leaders of the post-World War II period, namely Billy Graham and John Stott (who died the following year), both aged and no longer capable of public commitments. The Commitment was a further elaboration of the 1974 Covenant and the 1989 Manifesto, with an even more “missional” emphasis on the over-arching theme of love. Mission is considered as God’s mission that empowers the Church’s holistic mission in word and deed. Note the 2010 coincidence between Lausanne III and Benedict XVI’s creation of the new Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. After Lausanne I and Evangelii Nuntiandi (1974), then after Lausanne II and Redemptoris Missio (1989), one sees yet another missiological parallel between the Evangelical movement and the Roman Catholic Church.

Concerning the account of salvation, here is a significant text of the Cape Town Commitment:

“We love the assurance the gospel brings. Solely through trusting in Christ alone, we are united with Christ through the Holy Spirit and are counted righteous in Christ before God. Being justified by faith we have peace with God and no longer face condemnation. We receive the forgiveness of our sins. We are born again into a living hope by sharing Christ’s risen life. We are adopted as fellow heirs with Christ. We become citizens of God’s covenant people, members of God’s family and the place of God’s dwelling. So by trusting in Christ, we have full assurance of salvation and eternal life, for our salvation ultimately depends, not on ourselves, but on the work of Christ and the promise of God. ‘Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ How we love the gospel’s promise! God commands us to make known to all nations the truth of God’s revelation and the gospel of God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ, calling all people to repentance, faith, baptism and obedient discipleship” (8.C)

The standard Evangelical view of salvation is rehearsed with its traditional emphasis on the “Christ alone” grounds of salvation and the calling to make the Gospel known to the whole world. The theme of Christian assurance is also evoked as stemming from salvation. The Church is contemplated as the “covenant people”, “God’s family”, and “the place of God’s dwelling”, so to convey the message of salvation as not an overtly individualistic bent, but as an ecclesiological thrust. Quite remarkably for an Evangelical document of this kind, “baptism” is also referred to as part of the calling to be extended to all nations. There is no hint of sacramental language, though. Even the position of baptism in the fourfold sequence is interesting in that it places baptism after repentance and faith, so as to allow an understanding of baptism as an ordinance that does not sacramentally cause repentance and faith, but rather follows them. The reference to baptism is nonetheless interesting with regards to the next section that deals with recent dialogues between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics on salvation.

III. Case Studies in the Evangelical – Roman Catholic Dialogue

The topic of salvation has been central in recent dialogues between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Given its Biblical pervasiveness, its historical and doctrinal significance in the Christian tradition, and its paramount importance in defining both the Evangelical and the Roman Catholic identities after the Reformation, it should not be surprising that this is the case. Several Protestant denominations and traditions have been dialoguing with the Roman Catholic Church on the doctrine of salvation at different levels and with different focuses. What will be taken into consideration here is the dialogues that have taken place between self-defined Evangelical bodies or self-defined Evangelical groups and Roman Catholic representatives, both officially nominated and informally convened. The theme of salvation runs through the wider conversation and it is not often the main focus of it. Nonetheless, for the future of the dialogue it is necessary to take into account previous attempts of discussing various aspects of the doctrine of salvation.

III.1 The Evangelical Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission (1977-1984)

Between 1977 and 1984 representative groups of Evangelicals and Roman Catholics met on three occasions for intensive dialogue on mission under the leadership of John Stott and Basil Meeking.[27] ERCDOM was the outcome of this particular historical phase which both Roman Catholic and Evangelical constituencies experienced. On the one hand, the Second Vatican Council with the decree Ad Gentes was integrated by Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi in 1975, and put mission back on the Roman Catholic agenda. On the other, the Evangelical International Congress on World Evangelization which took place in Lausanne in 1974 fully confirmed the traditional Evangelical emphasis on mission in the Lausanne Covenant.

Recognizing this parallel interest in mission, ERCDOM resolved to be “a faithful record of the ideas shared” (11) in which the brief exposition of both positions was followed by the honest indication of areas of disagreement as well as points of agreement. Our interest here has to do with the section on “The Gospel of Salvation”.

Participants found areas of consensus on the inseparability of “repentance and faith, conversion and baptism, regeneration and incorporation into the Christian community” (57-60) as well as on “certain convictions about the Church” (65-69). On the whole, ERCDOM testifies to the reality that “deep truths unite” Evangelicals and Roman Catholics (82-83), and that on certain fundamental doctrines their understanding is “identical or very similar” (88). This, however, is only one side of the coin. ERCDOM also clearly shows that “divisions continue” (82) and that they are rooted in “real and important convictions” (83) that the two counterparts wholeheartedly hold as essential elements of their doctrinal identity. Beside other areas of disagreement, the Report refers to the understanding of the soteriological significance of the work of Christ.

In this respect, Evangelicals stress the word “substitution”, whereas Catholics prefer the word “solidarity” (43). On the basis of this divergence, the meaning of the word “gospel” can change considerably (ibidem). Moreover, there is the recognition that profound divergences are apparent in the doctrine of sin whereby Evangelicals are more pessimistic stressing the concept of “total depravity” while Roman Catholics are more optimistic speaking of sin in terms of “injury” and “disorder” (40). Somewhat analogously, Evangelicals are referred to as underlining “discontinuity” whereas Catholics focus on “continuity” between man redeemed and man unredeemed (73). Consequently, the meaning of the term grace is articulated “somewhat differently” (60). Finally, an appendix to the proceedings is dedicated to Mariology giving Evangelicals an occasion to express all their “uneasiness” with a “certainly ambiguous and probably misleading” vocabulary with soteriological implications used by Roman Catholics in relation to Mary (52).[28]

On the whole, ERCDOM reflects a responsible ethos of dialogue on salvation. On the one hand it tries to allow both traditions to speak in their own terms and to compare the respective languages, thought-forms and expressions of what they believe. Common features are appreciated and differences are not hidden nor squeezed. On the other, though, it makes the effort to show awareness of wider theological issues that undergird the accounts of salvation. Salvation is not an isolated theological topic but has multiple connections with the whole of one’s own “system” of beliefs.

III.2 The Venice Consultation on “Justification, Scripture and Tradition” (1993) and the “Church, Evangelization and the Bonds of Koinonia” (2003)

After the publication of the 1986 “An Evangelical Perspective on Roman Catholicism” by the World Evangelical Fellowship,[29] conversations began between WEF and the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. The first official event between the delegations was held in October 1993 in Venice with “Justification, Scripture and Tradition” as the general theme. The choice of such a triangular topic was the result of a compromise. The Pontifical Council’s proposal to focus on a fundamental issue like Scripture and tradition was fully endorsed. Yet, Evangelicals felt that the doctrine of justification by faith could not be ignored and pressed for it to be included in the course of the discussion.[30] The outcome of the agreement was thus “Justification, Scripture and Tradition”.

In his paper,[31] George Vandervelde surveys the US Lutheran-Catholic dialogue on justification pointing out the “convergences” as well as the persisting “contrasting perspectives” that emerged as a result of the bilateral dialogue. The whole discussion is presented against the background of the Reformation versus Trent controversy. One aspect which deserves mentioning is that both parties now agree that justification by faith is only “a criterion, not the criterion for the authenticity of the Church” as the Lutheran tradition used to maintain with the famous saying articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae. On this point, Vandervelde introduces a distinction between a “necessary and sufficient criteria” for guiding the Church (146). Justification belongs to the former, not to the latter, in that “salvation in Christ is too rich, too deep and broad, to be captured by the soteriological cutting edge” of this doctrine (147). On the whole, this dialogue touches on salvation only through a historical overview of the controversy over justification by faith, but does not really grapple with the issue.[32]

More substantial is the contribution on the topic of salvation by the 2003 study document “Church, Evangelization and the Bonds of Koinonia” which stemmed out of the dialogue between the World Evangelical Alliance and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. [33] According to the drafters “a common reflection on the biblical notion of koinonia would help us to clarify some convergences and differences between us on the church”. The relevant passages of the document are the following:


(5) For both Evangelicals and Roman Catholics communion with Christ involves a transformative union whereby believers are “koinonoi of the divine nature and escape the corruption that is in the world by lust” (2 Pt 1:4). Catholics tend to interpret koinonia in this passage to mean a participation in the divine life and “nature,” while Evangelicals tend to interpret koinonia as covenant companionship, as it entails escaping moral corruption and the way of the world.


Here an important point is rightly highlighted. The word koinonia has obvious links with salvation and because of that it is interpreted differently by Roman Catholics and Evangelicals. A participatory meaning is preferred in Catholic theology (based on a less radical view of sin, a more optimistic anthropology, a highly sacramental framework and a de iure divino hierarchical ecclesiology) whereas a covenantal significance is given priority by Evangelicals (such as referring to covenant-breaking and covenant-renewal, condemnation and acquittal, enmity and reconciliation, as it is stated in n. 58). The word “fellowship” is the same, yet its meaning is different. Words do not stand in isolation but are part of theological frameworks that inform what they mean. In dialogue we can use the same words, yet we have to be sure that we understand what it is meant by those who use them.


III.3 The Gift of Salvation (1997)

The year 1994 marked the release of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) statement in the USA, which was the outcome of an informal dialogue that emerged out of the “culture wars” that North America was experiencing between secularizing tendencies and more religious approaches to public life.[34] The first result of this initiative was a shorter document released in November 1997 under the title of The Gift of Salvation (GOS).[35] Sponsored and led by the same authors as ECT, namely Charles Colson and Richard Neuhaus, GOS can be thought of as being an elucidation of the “We Affirm Together” of the previous document. The filial connection is also evoked when GOS is sometimes referred to as ECT II.

Granting the decisive importance of sola fide in historic Protestantism and noting the “noisy silence” in ECT over it, Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul defined it “the missing doctrine” of the statement.[36] 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 was an “ecumenism of conviction”, not one of “accommodation”[37] as was charged against the vagueness of ECT on various matters. 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 upon version of sola fide. With this development, the ECT process has gained some 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”.[38]

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”.[39] Without making any reference to the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue nor to any other relevant ecumenical documents 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. The problem of ambiguity is 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”.[40] GOS only affirms “ingredients” of sola fide, not sola fide itself.

It is fair to say that 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 and Catholic signatories 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 somewhat wanting. In Sproul’s telling words, “the ECT initiative … proclaims too much way too soon”.[41] 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”, thus by no means implying “a unity of faith with the church of Rome”.[42] 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”.[43]

GOS is therefore a further exercise in the on-going Evangelical – Roman Catholic dialogue on salvation which shows some merits as well some weaknesses. Its primary merit is that it rightly addresses the core issue of the historical and theological division that has existed since the time of the Reformation in a fresh way and with an open-minded attitude. The major weakness is that the conversation needs to be more historically conscious, theologically careful and ecumenically alert than previous contributions to both ECT or GOS have been.

IV. Concluding Remarks in View of Future Conversations

The doctrine, experience, message and symbolic significance of salvation represent the core of the Evangelical faith. The same could be argued as far as the Roman Catholic faith is concerned. Yet differences remain because salvation is received, lived out, and accounted for in different ways. Building on past experiences of dialogue between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics and given the fact that this dialogue will continue, it is important to learn the art of dialogue in a theologically informed, historically conscious, and pastorally alert way. The following are some broad perspectives which can be helpful in pushing the conversation further without losing sight of wider issues and concerns.

Christian doctrines are part of a more or less coherent theological system. The doctrine of salvation is no exception. It is rooted in the Triune life of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; it is based on His grace alone that saves sinners and renews the world; it is anchored in the unique person and the once-and-for-all work of Jesus Christ and His mediatorship; it is grounded in the on-going work of the Holy Spirit; it presupposes man’s sinful condition and total inability to be reconciled to God; it is attested to in the written and inspired Word of God; it is related to the whole of the Christian life that is changed by salvation; it is linked to the life of the Church and its ordinances; and it is connected to the eschatological hope of the resurrection and eternal life. The list could go on in spelling out all the doctrinal dimensions of the Christian faith and in appreciating their multiple relationships. What matters here is that salvation stands in the middle of a theological web, and is an organic part of the whole Christian vision.

The Evangelical doctrine of salvation, in its essential yet coherent account, is not isolated from other Biblical doctrines that define the Evangelical faith. The same is true as far as Roman Catholicism is concerned. When Evangelicals and Roman Catholics discuss their respective soteriologies they do so with a specific focus on the topic itself, but also in its being part of their comprehensive theological meta-narrative. With many theological issues that are organically related to salvation, there are different degrees of consensus or dissent between Evangelicals and Catholics that come to the fore as dialogue proceeds. Instead of stifling mutual understanding, the awareness of the respective theological “system” helps to clarify the merits of one specific topic and allows one to grasp it responsibly. How is salvation related to the whole of the theological system? How does it impact the system and how is impacted by it? How does it translate into spiritual practices?

Evangelicals tend to view salvation in relational categories whereby God saves lost sinners in reconciling them to Himself by the work of Christ alone. The whole theological vocabulary of salvation is relational in focus and intent: regeneration (life language), justification (juridical language), adoption (familial language), and conversion (language of change). These are all pictures that depict the re-enacted relationship between God and man in different ways. Evangelicals find it difficult to think of salvation in sacramental terms. In the Evangelical understanding and experience of salvation, the sacraments are important, but not prominent. They are in the background, of course, as part of the God-given and Scripture-attested life of the church, but are not essential to salvation and the theological account of salvation.[44] To put it simply: no Evangelical would say that she is saved because she has been baptized or because she is a regular participant at Communion services. The basic view of salvation is that it is God’s free gift, in spite of ourselves, through the work of Jesus on the cross and His resurrection. John Stott is again helpful here: “If there is no saving merit either in our good works or in our faith, there is no saving merit in the mere reception of the sacraments either… It is not by the mere outward administration of water in baptism that we are cleansed and receive the Spirit, nor by the mere gift of bread and wine in Communion that we feed on Christ crucified, but by faith in the promises of God thus visibly expressed, a faith which is itself meant to be illustrated in our humble, believing acceptance of these signs. But we must not confuse the signs with the promises which they signify. It is possible to receive the sign without receiving the promise, and also to receive the promise apart from receiving the sign”.[45]

The cross, not the Eucharist, has center-stage in the Evangelical horizon.[46] The hapax (once-and-for-all) significance of the cross is emphasized much more than the mallon (more and more) aspect of the Eucharist.[47] Each Evangelical tradition has its own sacramentology, but it does not lie at the “center” of the Evangelical faith. Nor does sacramental language define the grammar and vocabulary of the Evangelical understanding of salvation. When Evangelicals and Catholics converse about salvation, a relational theological mindset is exposed to a sacramental theological mindset and vice versa. Many words and expressions are the same, but their theological meanings are different because of the distance between their underlying, fundamental frameworks.

Linked to the Evangelical uneasiness towards sacramental language is the place of the Church in the account of salvation. Salvation is a personal salvation through the unique mediation of Christ. The emphasis is put on the direct relationship between the person saved and Christ, rather than on the Church as a corporate agent that administers grace.

Stemming from the once-and-for-all work of Christ and the firm promises of the Gospel, Evangelicals also experience a high degree of the assurance of salvation. Salvation is certain because of the juridical significance of justification and the eschatological trustworthiness of God’s covenant promises. “If I die today, I will go to heaven” is the standard Evangelical language. Sometime this attitude is perceived as arrogant and misplaced, yet it reflects the “grace alone”, “faith alone” and “Christ alone” emphases of the Evangelical account of salvation. Indeed, salvation belongs to the Lord and those who receive it can be assured of it, despite their failures. Generally speaking, Roman Catholics find it difficult to appropriate this assurance, and this reluctance derives from a different way of approaching salvation.

We could also touch on the different anthropological views that form the basis of the different accounts of salvation. How much, for example, does the homo capax dei tradition affect Roman Catholic soteriology and the Evangelical puzzlement over it because of its apparently overt optimism? How deep is the respective doctrine of man’s sin as the natural condition that prevents any contribution on his part for his salvation?

Dialogue is a means of elucidating all of these dimensions. They are all inter-related because of the comprehensive and articulated nature of Christian theology. Staying on the surface could allow a faster dialogue but its quality and usefulness would suffer.[48]

[1] Popular Evangelical, yet theologically serious treatments of salvation are Ernest F. Kevan, Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House 1963) and David F. Wells, The Search of Salvation (Leicester: IVP 1978). The bibliography of this paper will focus on resources in English.

[2] J.I. Packer, “Evangelicals and the Way of Salvation” in K.S. Kantzer – C.F.H. Henry (edd.), Evangelical Affirmations (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990) pp. 111-112.

[3] This is one of the five characteristics of Evangelicalism according to George Marsden (ed.), Evangelicalism and Modern America (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994) pp. ix-x. The other four are: “the final authority of Scripture”, “the real, historical character of God’s saving work recorded in Scripture”, “the importance of evangelism and missions”, and “the reality of a spiritually transformed life”. The literature on the complex nature of Evangelicalism is vast, but the reference to a certain understanding and experience of salvation is central in many accounts of Evangelicalism. See Derek Tidball, Who Are the Evangelicals? Tracing the Roots of Today’s Movement (London: Marshall Pickering, 1994) and Alister McGrath, A Passion for Truth. The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism (Leicester: Apollos, 1996).

[4] Carl Henry, “Who are the Evangelicals” in K.S. Kantzer – C.F.H. Henry (edd.), Evangelical Affirmations, cit., p. 75. See also Donald A. Carson, “The Biblical Gospel” in Steve Brady – Harold Rowdon (edd.), For Such a Time as This. Perspectives on Evangelicalism, Past, Present and Future (London: Scripture Union, 1996) pp. 75-85.

[5]sōtēría” in G. Kittel – G. Friedrich (edd.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VII (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971) pp. 965-1003. Here is a summary by J. Packer: “Salvation is a picture-word of wide application that expresses the idea of rescue from jeopardy and misery into a state of safety. The gospel proclaims that the God who saved Israel from Egypt … saves all who trust Christ from sin and sin’s consequences”: J.I. Packer,  Concise Theology. A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publ., 1993) p. 146. The same theologian provides helpful word studies on salvation in J.I. Packer, God’s Words. Studies in Key Bible Themes (Leicester: IVP 1981).

[6] John Stott, Christ the Controversialist. The Basics of Belief (Leicester: IVP, 1970, 21996) pp. 109-110.

[7] John Stott, Christ the Controversialist, cit., p. 33. In the same book, Stott argues that Evangelical Christianity is “theological”, “biblical”, “original” and “fundamental, pp. 27-46.

[8] Gerald Bray, “Evangelicals, Salvation and Church History” in Thomas P. Rausch (ed.), Catholics and Evangelicals. Do They Share a Common Future? (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 2000) pp. 77-100.

[9] James I. Packer – Thomas C. Oden, One Faith. The Evangelical Consensus (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004) pp. 163-164.

[10] This is argued by Donald A. Carson, “Evangelicals, Ecumenism and the Church” in K.S. Kantzer – C.F.H. Henry (edd.), Evangelical Affirmations, cit., pp. 349-354.

[11] Robert Webber, Common Roots. A Call to Evangelical Maturity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978) p. 26.

[12] See Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought. An Introduction (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988) ch. 5 on “The doctrine of grace”.

[13] This is the title of one of John Stott’s classics: The Cross of Christ (Leicester: IVP, 1986).

[14] These are the titles of the four parts of the book by Philip G. Ryken, The Message of Salvation (Leicester: IVP, 2001) and well reflect the gist of Evangelical soteriology.

[15] David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. A History from 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989). On Bebbington’s overall understanding of Evangelicalism, see the recent and helpful critical discussion in Michael A.G Haykin – Kenneth J. Stewart (edd.), The Emergence of Evangelicalism. Exploring Historical Continuities (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008).

[16] There is a recent study on being “born again” by John Piper, Finally Alive. What Happens When We Are Born Again (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2010).

[17] Stephen R. Holmes, Evangelical Doctrine: Basis for Unity or Cause of Division?, “Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology” 30:1 (2012) p. 64. Holmes then goes on to stress the foundational importance of soteriology for the formation of Evangelical theology as a whole: “For this gospel to be true, God must be triune, and Christ must be fully divine and truly human, so we take our stand on classical Trinity and Christology. The basis of this gospel is in the Scriptures, so Biblical authority, sufficiently strong to establish truth, is central to our belief”. Classical Trinitarian theology and Christology are maintained in so far as they explain the soteriological scheme of Scripture. Evangelical theology is therefore an outworking of soteriology.

[18] Klaas Runia, What is Evangelical Theology?, “Evangelical Review of Theology” 21:4 (1997) p. 299.

[19] James I. Packer – Thomas C. Oden, One Faith. The Evangelical Consensus, cit., p. 160.

[20] It should be noted that the worldview of the “sinner’s prayer” is a topic of growing uneasiness in Evangelical circles. It is deemed to be too simplistic, too individualistic, too modernistic, too superficial, too close to Western cultural patterns of individual decision-making processes and far from other cultural patterns, etc. Having said all this and being aware of its weaknesses (see “Christianity Today”’s 2012 September editorial http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/september/the-evangelical-jesus-prayer.html), the “sinner’s prayer” is a “monument” of present-day Evangelical spirituality that needs to be grappled with.

[21] Billy Graham, Peace with God, 1953 and dozens of subsequent editions and reprints. Here is the structure of the book:

Part One: Assessing the situation

The Great Quest; The Indestructible Bible; What is God Like?; The Terrible Fact of Sin; Dealing with the Devil; The Despair of Loneliness; After Death-What?

Part Two: Advancing the Solution

Why Jesus Came; How and Where to Begin; What is Repentance?; What is Faith?; The Old and the New; How to Be Sure.

Part Three: Applying the Antidote

Enemies of the Christian; Guidelines for Christian Living; The Christian and the Church; Am I my Brother’s Keeper?; Hope for the Future; Peace at Last; The Day After.

[22] Some of the criticism from “liberal” voices are found in Michael G. Long (ed.), The Legacy of Billy Graham. Critical Reflections on America’s Greatest Evangelist (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).

[23] The proceedings of the Berlin Congress are published by Carl F.H. Henry – W. Stanley Mooneyham (edd.), One Race, One Gospel, One Task, vol. 1 (Minneapolis, MN: World Wide Publ., 1967).

[24] James I. Packer – Thomas C. Oden, One Faith. The Evangelical Consensus, cit., p. 24. The authors explain the meaning of the word “consensus”: it has mainly to do with the drafting procedures (by international and interdenominational bodies, rather than individuals), and with the fairly extended reception of the documents by the grassroots Evangelical movement. See also pp. 162-173.

[25] The main Lausanne documents up to 1989 have been collected by John Stott (ed.), Making Christ Known. Historic Mission Documents from the Lausanne Movement (1974-1989) (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1996). Later documents, especially the 2012 Cape Town Commitment, can be found at www.lausanne.org.

[26] The proceedings of the conference and the Amsterdam Declaration can be found in The Mission of an Evangelist (Minneapolis, MN: World Wide Publ., 2001).

[27]  John Stott – Basil Meeking (edd.), The Evangelical – Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission 1977-1984 (Grand Rapids, MI – Exeter: Eerdmans – Paternoster, 1986). The Evangelical participants were not “official representatives of any international body” while the Roman Catholic ones were named by the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, pp. 7-8. Page numbers will be written in the main text.

[28] A more detailed examination of ERCDOM can be found in my book Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism (Bern: Peter Lang, 2003) pp. 113-118.

[29] Paul Schrotenboer (ed.), Roman Catholicism. A Contemporary Evangelical Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987).

[30] Paul Schrotenboer, Introduction, “Evangelical Review of Theology” 21:2 (1997) pp. 101-102. WEF had previously sponsored an international symposium on justification by faith: Donald A. Carson (ed.), Justification in the Bible and the World (Exeter – Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster – Baker, 1992).

[31] George Vandervelde, Justification between Scripture and Tradition, “Evangelical Review of Theology” 21:2 (1997) pp. 128-148.

[32] More details on this Venice consultation can be found in my Evangelical Theological Perspectives, cit.,  pp. 131-135.

[34] Charles Colson – Richard J. Neuhaus (edd.), Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Toward a Common Mission (Dallas, TX: Word Publ., 1995). In this section I use parts of my article published as Christian Unity vis-à-vis Roman Catholicism: a Critique of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together Dialogue, “Evangelical Review of Theology” 27:4 (2003) pp. 337-352.

[35] The GOS text was originally published in “Christianity Today” (Dec 8, 1997) p. 34.

[36] R.C. Sproul, By Faith Alone. The Doctrine that Divides (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995) pp. 22-24.

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

[38] Ibidem.

[39] As reported by R. Frame, “Christianity Today” (Jan 12, 1998) p. 61.

[40] R.C. Sproul, What ECTII Ignores. The inseparable link between imputation and the gospel, “Modern Reformation” (Sept/Oct 1998). Other criticism by Sproul to the whole ECT initiative are echoed in his book Getting the Gospel Right. The Tie that Binds Evangelicals Together (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999).

[41] R.C. Sproul, What ECTII Ignores, cit. 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) p. 82. Neuhaus too recognises that the central issue of the Protestant-Catholic divergence on the doctrine was untouched by GOS.

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

[43] Gerald Bray, Editorial, “Churchman” 113 (1999) p. 197.

[44] This aspect is well presented in the 1996 WEF document on Roman Catholicism: Paul Schrotenboer (ed.), Roman Catholicism. A Contemporary Evangelical Perspective, cit., par. 8.

[45] John Stott, Christ the Controversialist, cit., pp. 120-121.

[46] See my The Cross and the Eucharist: the Doctrine of the Atonement According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “European Journal of Theology” VIII (1999/1) pp. 49-59.

[47] On the hapax and mallon as defining categories for Evangelical theology, see John Stott, Evangelical Truth. A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity and Faithfulness (Leicester: IVP, 1999) pp. 34-38. I have applied this distinction in assessing the Roman Catholic language of “prolongation” of the Incarnation, “re-presentation” of the Eucharist and the “dynamic” time of Revelation: see The Blurring of Time Distinctions in Roman Catholicism, “Themelios” 29:2 (2004) pp. 40-46.

[48] As it is rightly argued by Pietro Bolognesi, Catholicisme romain et protestantisme évangélique : réconciliation, mais sous quelles conditions ?, “La Revue Réformée”  N° 263 (2012/4).


103. Evangelicals and Catholics Together (1994-2015)

March 9th, 2015

Twenty years is a sufficient time to reflect on the current trajectory initiated of the “Evangelical and Catholics Together” (ECT) initiative. Over the years this informal North American project spurred by Chuck Colson and Richard Neuhaus has produced a substantial series of documents on various doctrinal and moral topics. More than that ECT has set a friendly tone to a complex relationship that was previously marked by distance and even mutual opposition. I have already critically dealt with the context and the content of ECT elsewhere,[1] and so my primary concern here is to reflect on two commitments that ECT has embodied thus far and that perhaps represent its major on-going legacy.


The title of the initiative has proven to have had a far-reaching and programmatic value and has superseded in importance of the more than several thousand words of its texts. Evangelicals and Catholics stand together. They confess together. They pray together. They are together. They belong together. More than anything else the insistence on them being together is what really seems to matter. The outcome is that one group cannot be thought of without the other and vice versa. They continue to be distinct as Evangelicals and Catholics, but they are and shall be always together. Few of those familiar with ETC will be aware of the existing differences between Evangelicals and Catholics (which the ECT documents readily admit), but all of them will remember the emphasis on togetherness. In a world heavily characterized by religious conflicts and divisions, the psychological attachments of the word “together” prevail over the informational import of the initiative. Being together is an overarching commitment that addresses deeply felt concerns. The point is subtle because nowadays no one likes to be perceived as divisive and sectarian.

Generally speaking, togetherness is a highly valued condition. Biblically, however, it needs to be qualified in order not to become an intrusive idol. Togetherness, in fact, can become an idol if it is made an absolute in itself and is not defined by biblical truth. If this is the case, it can lead to unwarranted alliances and dangerous forms of unity, forcing people to say only “nice” things and only those things that do not question what is assumed as an already given unity. There is a whole stream of biblical teaching instructing God’s people to be aware of the dangers of forming spurious alliances (e.g.: Leviticus 20:26; 1 Kings 8:53; Proverbs 13:20; 2 Corinthians 6:17). The point here is that all references to togetherness need to be safeguarded and counter-balanced by a biblically defined theology of separation. Christian identity must define both sides according to the Word of God. ECT does recognize areas of difference, but its overall framework is to stress Evangelicals and Catholics being together in spite of being separated in very substantial ways. The former is stronger than the latter and ultimately defines the relationship. Therefore ECT has not only been an opportunity for dialogue and mutual understanding, it has from the beginning assumed the unity that needs instead to be biblically demonstrated. In this sense, ECT contains in its title a programmatic statement which is somewhat one-sided and over-stretched.

The Part for the Whole

The second remark has to do with another characteristic of ECT, namely its tendency to project what can be said of a single part onto the whole. Take, for instance, those who have been involved in the dialogue. The Catholic signatories of ECT are all biblically informed and very much influenced by a historically significant Protestant culture which has contributed to the shaping of their religious worldview. They are culturally close to their Evangelical counterparts and share with them important contours of the Christian life. All of this is mediated by a pluralist setting (i.e the USA) which crucially benefited from a Protestant input. Their attachment to Catholic popular devotions is discrete, and their underlining of certain Roman Catholic teachings and practices, which can hardly be found in Scripture, is almost unnoticeable. This is a very selected group of Roman Catholics and yet ECT, while legitimately speaking of them as “Catholics”, does so as if they embodied the whole or at least the majority of Catholics. Those who have at the very least a minimal experience outside of certain North American intellectual circles know that the bigger picture is much different. In many parts of the world Catholicism is largely defined by other religious commitments than those of ECT. What ETC says may apply to a group of people (be they Evangelicals or Catholics), yet the impression is given that the US Catholics with whom Evangelicals supposedly stand together are representative of the billion plus Catholics around the world. It is an overstatement, to say the least.

Secondly, the exchange between the part and the whole occurs also as far as the theological framework of the dialogue is concerned. Typically, each topic that is discussed by ECT is analyzed thematically, exploring the areas of agreement along with the points that need further study or where divergences can be found. In this way it is difficult if not impossible to get to the crux of things, i.e. the core issues which prevent Evangelicals and Catholics from being together on basic issues. Little attention is given to doctrinal presuppositions, spiritual assumptions, and the bigger theological frameworks that inform each one’s theological traditions. The outcome is that each document contains a cahier de doléances concerning the remaining areas of divergence but does not provide suggestions for coming to terms with what is at stake fundamentally between the two groups. It tends to go around it without tackling it.

Instead of ECT, perhaps a better and more realistic title for the next twenty years would be ECD: Evangelicals and Catholics in Dialogue.

[1] Christian Unity vis-à-vis Roman Catholicism: a Critique of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together Dialogue, “Evangelical Review of Theology” 27:4 (2003) pp. 337-352. https://vaticanfiles.org/2015/02/christian-unity-vis-a-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

“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.