Evangelicals and Catholics Together – Part 3

(April 1998 – Volume 4, Issue 4)

The Book

After the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document was published, Chuck Colson claimed, ‘We were not prepared for the intensity of the discussion – and controversy that greeted the declaration’ (p.ix). Why not? After all Evangelicals and Catholics Together was all but asking the evangelical community to dismiss the Reformation and vital truths such as sola fide (salvation by faith alone) and sola scriptura (truth for life and practice found in Scripture alone) – such requests ought to be greeted with a little turbulence, one would think.

Colson sees things a little differently: He claims contention was not caused by great and massive doctrinal concerns, but because Evangelicals and Catholics Together is an invitation to reexamine stereotypes, prejudices, and conventional ideas that have been entrenched, in some cases, for almost five hundred years” (ibid.). So begins this volume of spin and damage control in an effort to quiet the fanatics (we are happy to include ourselves in this camp) and to persuade the vacillators to join the Evangelicals and Catholics Together position. We will not deal much with the actual Evangelicals and Catholics Together documents (for further information see our two “Think On These Things” papers on the subject); instead we would like to critique the book that attempts to defend the documents. The volume entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward A Common Mission, was edited by Chuck Colson and Richard John Neuhaus. It contains six essays, each composed by different authors of varying doctrinal views. The following is an overview of each article and critique.

Charles Colson –

Colson (an evangelical) writes about our common cultural task and tries to convince us that Catholics and evangelicals need to forget their differences and unite against the common enemies of secularism and post-modernism. His argument can be summed up in this statement, “The controversies that have divided believers for nearly five hundred years are real, to be sure, and none of them is to be minimized. However, the divisions between us are not the baffle of the hour, when hosts of secularists and relativists threaten to sweep away the last trace of Christian truth, thought, and influence from our culture. Indeed, the controversies that divide us are far less significant than the common threat that confronts us” (p. 38).

George Weigel –

Weigel is a professor of ethics who does not declare his Christian convictions, although he appears to be the most liberal of the authors when he states that the ‘Jewish people are our elder brothers and sisters in faith’ (p. 50). He deals with Christianity in the political arena and the common ethics shared by all ‘Christians’: ‘Reversing the governmentally enforced secularization of American public life, and recreating the possibility of a public square in which religiously grounded moral convictions are engaged within the bond of democratic civility, is perhaps !he moral-cultural issue in American public life at the end of the twentieth century’ (p. 49). Weigel (as well as Colson) likes the phrase and the concept of, ‘ecumenism of the trenches.” What they mean by this is explained, ‘The new engagement between evangelicals and Roman Catholics in America was not the result of scholarly consultations in seminaries and graduate schools of divinity; rather, this new encounter began to be formed at the grass roots level in the 1970s, primarily in the pro-life movement” (p. 66).

Mark Noll –

Noll (a church historian at Wheaton College) is dedicated to persuading us that the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church misunderstood each other and thus developed a wall of separation. That wall began to crumble around 1960 (apparently all to the better). Noll carefully demonstrates that prior to the 1960s ‘Protestant anti-Romanism was a staple of the American theological world”(p. 87). In America, “White evangelical Protestants almost universally felt that Catholics threatened the biblically based character of American civilization” (p. 91). ‘And so,”Noll continues, “the fixed Protestant opinion was that Catholicism was such a flawed version of Christianity as to be hardly Christian at all” (p. 93). So what happened to change this attitude? Noll points to four things:

  • The election of a Catholic as president in 1960 (John F. Kennedy), which would ultimately reduce the fear of Catholicism in America.
  • The ecumenical spirit of Pope John XXIII and the convening of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). This opened the way for Catholic-Protestant discussions and dialogues which are now common place.
  • The “ecumenism of the trench,” in which evangelicals and Catholics have found themselves in agreement over many moral and political issues against secularism.
  • A greater tolerance in the area of theological issues. “The ecumenical dialogues promoted by the Second Vatican Council have gone a considerable distance toward clarifying the difference between mistaken religious stereotypes and genuine theological disagreement” (p. 96).

Two other important factors in this recent change of attitude between evangelicals and Catholics have been the example set by Billy Graham and the rise of the charismatic movement. All in a I 11, “The last several decades, . in sum, have witnessed a major reorientation in relations between Protestant evangelicals and Roman Catholics” (p. 100).

Noll is a careful historian. What he has written in this volume appears to be quite accurate, and his explanations for the evolving Protestant/Catholic relationship are convincing. But Noll does not efficiently explain what, if anything, changed doctrinally to allow for this new coziness. Were the Reformers “in error” because they misunderstood Catholic dogma? Noll does not admit to this, although it appears to be Neuhaus’ position, as we will later see. Has Rome’s theology changed? No! Its ability to tolerate differences and its willingness to dialogue have, changed, but its beliefs have not. Has evangelicalism changed? In some ways it has. One of the major discussions in this book involved the attempt to find a definition of “evangelical.” Just who is an evangelical? When the smoke has cleared the answer seems to be, “anyone who wants to be,” No real definition is now possible. However, the gospel message and the truths of Scripture that Rome has long opposed have not changed! So, Noll honestly admits that there are major theological differences that divide us, but he softens things by quoting Packer who says, “if relatively important theological differences still divide Catholics and evangelicals, it is also the case that the contemporary world needs to hear more about what Catholics and evangelicals share in common than about their legitimate disagreements. . . The cobelligerence of Catholics and Protestants fighting together for the basics of the creed is nowadays moreimportantthan discussion of doctrines (p. 107).

Avery Dulles –

Dulles (a Roman Catholic theologian) demonstrates from Rome’s point of view how unity may be possible. He points to some of the distinctives of the Catholic system that we would be wise to note:

Catholics still teach baptismal regeneration

One change, however, is Rome’s acceptance of baptism outside their community: “By incorporating Christians into Christ, baptism makes them members of one another. According to the ‘Decree on Ecumenism’ any valid baptism, even when administered outside the Catholic Church, causes the baptized to be ‘truly incorporated into the crucified and glorified Christ, and reborn to a sharing of the divine life. . . Thus baptism establishes a sacramental bond of unity existing among all who have been reborn by it’”(p. 131).

Catholics teach that their Church is still free to add to the Scriptures:

“When the bishops in an ecumenical council achieved virtual unanimity in formulating the faith of the Church, their collective decisions were considered binding and irreversible, inasmuch as the bishops were the qualified bearers of the apostolic tradition. Since these councils (up to and including Vatican 1) have been assembled under the invocation of the Holy Spirit, their decisions are attributed to the Holy Spirit acting through the bishops, as was the case when the apostolic leaders conferred at Jerusalem (Acts 15:28)’ (p. 133).

Dulles admits that full unity of Protestants and Catholics is beyond present prospects due to major doctrinal differences, but calls for as much unity as conscience will allow and for toleranceineverything.

J. I. Packer –

This well respected Reformed theologian desperately wants us to understand why he signed the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document. He fully realizes that the Catholic position is erroneous and incompatible with biblical Christianity, which is why of all the positions represented in this book, his is surely the most mystifying. He knows, understands and believes that Rome is wrong in its doctrines of transubstantiation, Mass-sacrifice, infallibility of the Church, Mariology, invocation of the saints, view of the gospel and understanding of Scripture (pp. 153-56) – but none of that seems to matter to him. ‘It is true that in 1994 Packer helped craft and then signed a clarification statement titled, “Resolutions for Roman Catholic and Evangelical Dialogue,” which carefully laid out the huge doctrinal differences between conservative evangelicals and Catholics (pp. 156-160). Also, he met with seven prominent critics of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, including John MacArthur and R. C. Sproul, to hammer out differences (p. 160-61). He states explicitly why he could never become a Catholic (pp. 161-63). Then in response to his own question – “Why then should I, or any Protestant like me, want to develop mission activity in partnership with Roman Catholics?’ – he offers the rather strange reply that Protestants and Catholics can participate together on the grass roots level in terms of the kingdom of God rather than the church (pp. 164ff) – (I know, this doesn’t make much sense!!!)

The major criticisms that have been fired at Evangelicals and Catholics Together have been those that involve soteriology. How can we, who firmly believe in sola ride, accept Catholics as true brothers and sisters in Christ when official Catholic dogma teaches a gospel of faith plus works? Allowing for the fact that some Catholics are born again (despite Rome’s doctrine), nevertheless, the gospel of the Roman Church is “another gospel” that should be condemned, not embraced (Gal. 1:5,6). Packer’s answer to such criticism proves slippery – he carefully avoids being boxed into a corner, but concerning baptismal regeneration he lets his guard down enough that we can see pretty clearly what’s on his mind, “Belief in baptismal regeneration only brings ruin where baptism is thought to make conversion unnecessary” (p. 169). In other words, all agree that baptism alone will not save, but no harm is done if one believes in baptism plus “conversion.” Never mind that this is disregard for sola fide, Packer doesn’t even address how Rome teaches its doctrine of conversion which is faith plus various forms of merit. Despite Packer’s earlier rhetoric he is willing to believe that salvation is attainable by something other than faith alone. This is an incredible sellout for the sake of outward unity! Packer ends his chapter with attempts to shame any who would dare challenge his views or that of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

Richard John Neuhaus –

In contrast, Neuhaus (a Roman Catholic priest) pens an article which pulls no punches the Catholic Church is superior (not surprising from a former Lutheran minister who converted to Catholicism) and here is why, The foundation of Neuhaus’ thoughts on Evangelicals and Catholics Together is that, “The most important affirmation of Evangelicals and Catholics Together is this: ‘All who accept Christ as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ. Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ’” (p.178). Case closed!

Neuhaus spends the bulk of his essay stating and supporting a wide range of Catholic doctrines the very doctrines that brought the Reformation to a head. Nothing has changed. His goal is to either attempt to convince his evangelical readers that Rome was right after all, or to at least elicit tolerance. The Catholic dogmas that Neuhaus supports include:

  • Baptismal regeneration (pp. 187,197).
  • Mariology – ‘Mary from her conception (by virtue of anticipating in faith her Son’s redeeming work) and the saints in their heavenly perfection are like him also in his sinlessness” (p. 1 91).
  • The Roman Catholic view of the Church (pp. 191, 196-97, 217-18, 220, 223). Neuhaus is very clear when he states, “In the Catholic view, Protestant theories of the church, whether advanced by liberals or conservatives, seem woefully inadequate” (p. 197). And, ‘If a person is convinced of the claims of the Catholic Church, that she is what she says she is, then, according to Catholic teaching, that person is in conscience bound to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church” (p. 196). Just what kind of differences does Neuhaus see between evangelicals and Catholics? Differences in vital nonnegotiable doctrines such as the Scriptures and salvation. As for the Scriptures, Neuhaus reiterates the standard Catholic view that the Church sits in judgment over the Scriptures: “The very Bible on which such a person relies as the Word of God was not formally defined as such until the end of the fourth century, and that was done by the Church’ (p.218). Regarding the gospel, Neuhaus (in relationship to the Church) writes, ‘For Catholics faith in Christ and faith in the Church constitutes one act of faith” (p. 217). “Put differently, there is no salvation apart from the church” (p. 220). ‘Faith in Christ and faith in the Church is one act of faith” (p. 223). Obviously these statements do not reflect the teachings of Scripture but they do reflect the views of Rome.
  • Blame for the Reformation – Rather than repentance for the heresies taught by the Medieval Church, Neuhaus attempts to spread the blame to the Reformers: “As has now been acknowledged many times over, Rome bears a heavy burden of responsibility for contributing to the circumstance that led Reformers to believe that separation was justified and necessary. A similarly grave responsibility is borne by the Reformers and their heirs who broke the necessary connection between the gospel and orthodox teaching, on the one hand, and the apostolic order of the Church” (pp. 1 98-99).
  • The gospel message – Since this is the most important and glaring error of the Roman system, and the one that should – and long has naturally divided us, we want to discuss this at length. Neuhaus admits that the Council of Trent in the 1600s condemned sola ride, or salvation by faith alone, and has never and will never recant that condemnation (pp. 208,9). But, he claims Trent did not really understand what the Reformers were trying to say, else they would not have done so (p. 207). We find this just a little hard to swallow, however, we will let it slide for a moment and move on to what Rome, via Neuhaus, believes today. It is at this point that the Catholic position is most obviously in error.

Neuhaus accurately details what the Reformers believed to be the biblical position, ‘Apart from that doctrine Justification by faith alone) they say, there is no true Church, for that doctrine is the gospel and is thus the article by which the Church stands or falls” (p.199). With this statement we wholeheartedly agree. He goes on to say, ‘To oppose the formula ‘justification by faith alone’ was, in the view of some Reformers, to oppose the gospel. Some champions of that position, however, seem to come close to saying that ‘justification by faith alone’ is the gospel, and the gospel is ‘justification by faith alone’- exclusively, exhaustively, and without reminder. Because there can be no Church apart from the gospel, it then follows that, where that formula is not embraced, there is no Church’ (p. 207). Again we agree, the Reformers and those who followed are on target; but Neuhaus says, “But surely that cannot be right,’ for in his view there is more than one gospel message: Sola fide for those who wish, and faith plus merit for the rest.

Herein lies the heart of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together error. The authors of these documents do not attempt to reconcile the two gospels (as if there could be more than one) they instead choose to allow both sides to believe whichever gospel they want to embrace. They are perfectly at peace with the notion that there are (at least) two gospels. To quote Neuhaus at length:

The signers of Evangelicals and Catholics Together say‘We affirm together that we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ.” To the charge that this statement is deceptive because it suggests that we have reached complete agreement on the central dispute of the Reformation, one must simply point out that anyone with the slightest familiarity with the history of theological controversy would immediately note the absence of the threefold “only’s” (the “three solas”). The sofas are conspicuous by their absence, and it is not by accident that they are absent. Evangelicals and Catholics Together does not disguise but repeatedly highlights the fact that there are important questions of continuing differences and disagreements between evangelicals and Catholics.

Neuhaus is right, the signatories of the original Evangelicals and Catholics Together document chose to believe that there really are two gospels – and somehow to them that is all right. What is interesting is to discover that in the second document, The Gift of Salvation, despite all of Neuhaus’ rhetoric to the contrary, the drafters chose to bring the gospel message in line with the view of the Reformers. They proclaim “sola fide” in no uncertain terms in the middle of the document, then subtly take it away at the end (see the previous Think on These Things). In Neuhaus’ own words, are he and the other signatories now “disguising” what they really believe – that sola fide is not the heart of the gospel message?

The volume under review explains the intentions and views of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together drafters in their own words. Their summary statement is clear: While Catholics and Evangelicals agree on many doctrines, they disagree on many others – including the gospel message. But not to worry, we can disagree on the gospel, we can differ over the issue of sola fide and works salvation, and yet both be ‘Christians.’ This is the message Evangelicals and Catholics Together is wanting the Christian world to believe!


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