(Summary of a lecture held in Rome at the Istituto di Cultura Evangelica e Documentazione on 12 June 2021 as part of the series “1921-2021: The Evangelical Faith Between Yesterday and Tomorrow” marking John Stott’s centenary. I wish to thank my friend and colleague Reid Karr for sharing the responsibility of the lecture, especially as far as the second section is concerned. A video of the lecture in Italian can be found here).
John Stott’s international stature and influence on the evangelical movement of the 20th century have been widely recognized and appreciated. His global standing in present-day evangelicalism makes him a towering figure also to be consulted on the relationship between the evangelical faith and Roman Catholicism. By helping post-World War II evangelicals to regroup around the biblical gospel and for the Christian mission, Stott also had a role (albeit not a primary one) in influencing the evangelical reading of Roman Catholicism that emerged from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Stott did not write a book on Catholicism and therefore did not have the opportunity to develop his analysis in an in-depth way. However, there are significant traces in his books and in the initiatives in which he had a leading role that can be assessed. This article will focus on three moments in Stott’s contribution to the evangelical analysis of Roman Catholicism. The first is based on his book Christ the Controversialist (1970), the second on his involvement in the “Evangelical-Catholic Dialogue on Mission” (ERCDOM 1977-1984), and the third on what is stated on the subject in the “Manila Manifesto” (1989).
In the cultural climate of the late Sixties that wanted a soft and inclusive Jesus (more of an inspirational friend than the Savior and Lord of our lives), Stott wrote a courageous book for that time. The title is programmatic: Christ the Controversialist: A Study in Some Essentials of Evangelical Religion. The Jesus Christ of the Bible is not a nice guy who gets along with everyone, but one who unites because he divides, who challenges, who unmasks hypocrisies. Stott has three main interlocutors in view: one is theological liberalism that would like a “moral” but not doctrinal Jesus; the other is downward ecumenism that wants unity without truth; and the third (although less treated than the first two) is Roman Catholicism that places the church before Christ. To these deviations, Stott contrasts the evangelical faith which, for him, is nothing but biblical Christianity.
In the aftermath of Vatican II, Stott is aware that Roman Catholicism is in a transition phase. He shows particular attention to the fact that Rome has opened the doors to the circulation of the Bible among the laity, overcoming the age-old resistance to a direct access to Scripture by the faithful. This “greater biblical awareness” can have “incalculable consequences” (p. 79). That said, Stott also points out that Catholicism, although involved in a process of “updating”, has in no way changed any of the anti-Protestant positions of its remote and recent past. What matters most is that the non-biblical practices elevated by Rome to identity markers (e.g. the auricular confession to the priest) are still there. Particularly critical is Stott’s reading of the “Credo of the People of God” which Paul VI promulgated at the conclusion of the Council to emphasize Catholic fidelity to its confessional principles: Mariology, the papacy, and the Mass. For Stott these are “entirely non-biblical traditions” (p. 25).
In addition to this, Stott notes in the texts of Vatican II a series of contradictions due to the reaffirmation of traditional doctrines juxtaposed with expressions that give voice to a previously unknown doctrinal development. Is Roman Catholicism the traditional one or the one being updated? For Stott, Rome is in a state of confusion, a situation that cannot be maintained for long. With these perplexities, Stott believes that the only wish for the future is “a thoroughgoing biblical reformation” (p. 23). This “reformation” has a deconstructive and a constructive part. On the one hand, Rome must abandon its unbiblical beliefs and practices, e.g. its dogmas about the immaculate conception and bodily assumption of Mary; on the other hand, Roman Catholicism must embrace “the doctrines of scriptural supremacy and free justification”. In other words, if Roman Catholicism really wants to take the path of biblical renewal, a commitment attested in words by Vatican II but in fact denied by the post-Council years, then the Reformation that Rome rejected in the 16th century remains a necessity in the 20th.
In Christ the Controversialist John Stott rehearses classic evangelical critique of Roman Catholicism. He is attentive to the dynamics arising from Vatican II, but not impressed by them, and is firmly convinced that the Reformation is the only way for a real change in Rome according to the biblical gospel.
The Dialogue Partner
A second moment in Stott’s contribution to the evangelical analysis of Roman Catholicism is linked to his involvement in ERCDOM (The Evangelical and Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission). In fact, Stott was the main referent of the evangelical group that participated in this informal dialogue in three meetings that were held between 1977 and 1984: Venice (1977), Cambridge (1982) and Landévennec (1984).
It is important to note that ERCDOM does not represent a theological agreement reached between Evangelicals and Catholics. It is not a joint declaration; that was not even the aim. The purpose of ERCDOM was to exchange ideas and theological convictions to see if there were points in common, since, with the “Lausanne Covenant” (1974) and with the apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Nuntiandi” of Paul VI (1975), both Evangelicals and Catholics had dealt with the theme of mission. ERCDOM is an account of the ideas exchanged and shared during these three meetings that highlights – according to the participants – some points in common and other areas where significant disagreements exist between the evangelical faith and Roman Catholicism, especially in their way of understanding and practicing mission.
The realistic purpose of ERCDOM is welcome. The participants knew that, due to existing theological differences, it would not be very wise to try to reach agreement on the many topics discussed. Instead, they chose to dialogue on issues of common interest.
That said, there are at least two weaknesses of ERCDOM to point out. The first is the approach that the participants used in discussing the various theological themes. Evangelicals in particular used an atomistic approach, which examines theological themes one at a time, as if each of them were in some way detachable from the whole. For example, it is as if the themes of revelation and authority were independent of Mariology. Or it is as if the theme of the reformation of the church were detached from the theme of the mission of the church. The risks of this approach, however, are highlighted when we compare it with a systemic approach. Unlike an atomistic approach – which examines theological themes one at a time, giving the impression that each theme can be isolated from all others – a systemic approach sees evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism as integral and integrated theological systems, that is, systems of faith and life in which everything is intimately connected. With this approach, if Christology is somehow detached from soteriology, Mariology, or missiology, the system collapses.
The second weakness to underline is the fact that ERCDOM has taken for granted the definitions of many theological terms that are crucial for a biblical understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and which are, then, essential for a healthy and biblical missiology. In other words, the evangelical faith and Roman Catholicism have a very similar vocabulary. Terms such as “gospel”, “salvation”, “conversion”, “sin”, “Holy Spirit”, “redemption”, “grace”, “Trinity”, “justification”, “church”, etc., are central to the vocabulary of both constituencies. The evangelicals who participated in ERCDOM, and Stott above all, erred in assuming that many of the terms they discussed, and which were central to their dialogues and the conclusions they reached, had the same biblical meaning. In Roman Catholic theology many key words of the Christian faith have a different meaning than the evangelical understanding. If we want to dialogue with Rome, this difference should be taken into account and not overlooked.
John Stott’s third and final contribution to the evangelical analysis of Roman Catholicism is not included in one of his writings, but has to do with his role as the main drafter of the “Manila Manifesto” (1989) at the conclusion of the Second Congress for World Evangelization. While the “Lausanne Covenant” (1974) does not contain any specific reference to relations with Roman Catholicism or other non-evangelical ecclesiastical bodies, the “Manila Manifesto” (a longer and more articulated text) refers to the question of what the posture of evangelicals before the church of Rome, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the World Council of Churches (WCC) should look like. In this regard, a quote from the “Manila Manifesto” is useful where Stott’s mediation is recognized in composing a differentiated framework and in the attempt to maintain a unitary discourse on the part of the whole evangelical world represented at the Congress:
Our reference to ‘the whole church’ is not a presumptuous claim that the universal church and the evangelical community are synonymous. For we recognize that there are many churches which are not part of the evangelical movement. Evangelical attitudes to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches differ widely. Some evangelicals are praying, talking, studying Scripture, and working with these churches. Others are strongly opposed to any form of dialogue or cooperation with them. All evangelicals are aware that serious theological differences between us remain. Where appropriate, and so long as biblical truth is not compromised, cooperation may be possible in such areas as Bible translation, the study of contemporary theological and ethical issues, social work, and political action. We wish to make it clear, however, that common evangelism demands a common commitment to the biblical gospel. (n. 9)
Here Stott is no longer a controversialist, nor a simple dialogue partner, but more of a photographer of the global situation. He takes a snapshot of the diversified situation within the evangelical world, records it, and describes it, without trying to identify useful criteria for increasing evangelical maturity in addressing the theological and systemic issues that the relationship with Rome and the WCC entail. Some evangelicals do it one way, others do it another way. Some participate in the ecumenical movement, others do not. Who has biblical reasons to do what she does and who does not, is not certain. The text simply affirms the legitimacy of both approaches and hurries to the next point.
In so doing, it is no longer the John Stott who, on the basis of the fundamental gospel issues at stake, has the courage to engage in a controversy with Rome, but it is the diplomat who, having practiced a rather atomistic approach to Roman Catholicism (as is the case of ERCDOM) and by extension to ecumenism, extends it to the drafting of the “Manila Manifesto”. The fact that evangelicals do not have a unified approach to non-evangelicals is not Stott’s responsibility. Yet, since Manila is concerned with mission and evangelization, doing mission and evangelization in communion with Rome or without any ecumenical relationship with Roman Catholicism makes a big difference.
The relationship with Roman Catholicism is one of the areas left unresolved by Stott’s long and blessed evangelical leadership. On other crucial issues (the authority of Scripture, the centrality of the cross, the need for conversion, the urgency of mission, the call to collaboration among evangelicals) Stott’s ministry was positively decisive and is still inspiring; on how to relate to the non-evangelical world, and above all to the Roman Catholic Church, Stott’s global ministry has been increasingly open-ended.
 More on Stott and Roman Catholicism can be found in L. De Chirico, Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism (Oxford-Bern: Peter Lang, 2003) pp. 106-118, 211-212, 295-297.
 Christ the Controversialist: A Study in some Essentials of Evangelical Religion (London: Tyndale Press, 1970).
J. Stott – B. Meeking (eds.), The Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission 1977-1984 (Grand Rapids, MI – Exeter: Eerdmans – Paternoster, 1986).