EVANGELICALS AND CATHOLICS TOGETHER
During the past 25 years a surprising development has brought together conservative Catholics and Evangelicals, who have discovered both doctrinal and ethical commonalties which provide a sense of unity and fellowship. Evidence of this is found in Evangelicals & Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission, edited by Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus (Dallas: Word, c. 1995). In a very profound sense, as Colson notes, this endeavor “seeks to continue the legacy of C.S. Lewis by focusing on the core beliefs of all true Christians so that adherents of both major traditions can work together in the common task of evangelizing the nonbelieving world” (p. 36). The book is an outgrowth of a carefully-crafted statement, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium,” which was signed by some of this nation’s most respected Christians: Avery Dulles, Kent Hill, Herbert Schlossberg, George Weigel, William Abraham, Bill Bright, Mary Ann Glendon, Nathan Hatch, Os Guiness, James Hitchcock, Peter Kreeft, Mark Noll, John Cardinal O’Connor, Thomas Oden, J.I. Packer, Pat Robertson, et al.
The statement anticipates the Third Millennium, which (building on this century’s amazing missionary expansion, the greatest in the history of the Church) John Paul II declares will be “a springtime of world missions.” Evangelicals and Catholics have been on the cusp of this missionary outreach and concern. And Christians–one billion Catholics, half of whom identify themselves as “evangelical”; 1.7 billion Protestants, of whom Evangelicals constitute the most devout–united can more effectively reach a hungry world if they embrace our Lord’s will: “May they all be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, so also may they be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17).
There will be, of course, “formidable opposition,” for in many places the Gospel “encounters resurgent spiritualities and religions that are explicitly hostile to the claims of the Christ” (p. xvii). Non-Christian religions are deeply-entrenched in many cultures. And “in our so-called developed societies, a widespread secularization increasingly descends into a moral, intellectual, and spiritual nihilism that denies not only the One who is the Truth but the very idea of truth itself.” (ibid). The task demands a deeply-rooted faith, an abiding confidence in the truth of the Gospel and the faithfulness of God. So “We enter the twenty-first century without illusions. With Paul and the Christians of the first century, we know that ‘we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the . . . spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.'” (p. xvii).
This leads the signatories to “affirm together” some fundamental assertions: “Jesus Christ is Lord. That is the first and final affirmation that Christians make about all of reality. He is the One sent by God to be Lord and Savior of all: ‘And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.’ (Acts 4)” (p. xvii). Still more: “We affirm together that we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ. Living faith is active in love that is nothing less than the love of Christ, for we together say with Paul: ‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ (Galatians 2)” (p. xviii). Though divided, organizationally, all believers are united in their commitment to Christ!
This means a shared understanding of what makes us Christian: conversion. “Conversion is turning away from all that is opposed to God, contrary to Christ’s teaching, and turning to God, to Christ, the Son, through the work of the Holy Spirit. It entails a turning from the self-centeredness of sin to faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. Conversion is a passing from one way of life to another new one, marked with the newness of Christ. It is a continuing process so that the whole life of a Christian should be a passage from death to life, from error to truth, from sin to grace. Our life in Christ demands continual growth in God’s grace. Conversion is personal but not private. Individuals respond in faith to God’s call but faith comes from hearing the proclamation of the word of God and is to be expressed in the life together in Christ that is the Church” (p. xxix).
While some in the staunchly-Reformed tradition would object to this statement, since it hardly takes a sola fide, saved-in-sins stance, the definition certainly should satisfy most of us in the Wesleyan tradition. Indeed, as Richard John Neuhaus notes: “Wesleyan, Arminian, Holiness, Pentecostal, and other evangelical traditions are much closer to the Catholic understanding of the connections between faith and the converted life, between justification and sanctification” (p. 199) than those dyed with Calvinist coloros.
Neuhaus says: “It is necessary to recall that the claim that sola fide is the article by which the Church stands or falls [argued by R.C. Sproul, for example] is hardly representative of evangelicalism. Much more representative is the thought and disposition of, for instance, John Wesley. With respect to soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, Wesley proposed a compelling synthesis of the Lutheran formula of ‘faith alone’ with the historical Catholic accent on the life of holiness. The great Methodist theologian Albert Outler put it this way: In the name of a Christianity both Biblical and patristic [Wesley] managed to transcend the doctrinal disjunctions which had spilled so much ink and blood since Augsburg and Trent” (pp. 210-211). Both faith and works must conjoin in the life of the true believers.
Such faith rests in the authority of Scripture and the guidance of the Holy Spirit: “We affirm together that Christians are to teach and live in obedience to the divinely inspired Scriptures, which are the infallible Word of God. We further affirm together that Christ has promised to his church the gift of the Holy Spirit who will lead us into all truth in discerning and declaring the teaching of Scripture” (p. xviii). Importantly, “In faithful response to the Spirit’s leading, the church formulated the Apostles’ Creed, which we can and hereby do affirm together as an accurate statement of scriptural truth” (p. xix).
Given a solid foundation, ECT then addresses today’s demands. To discern and do God’s will, to join together and addressing a fallen world, compels us to rightly contend for the faith, to oppose “all that opposes Christ and his cause” (p. xxiii). First of all, this means we must “proclaim the Good News that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,'” making ever central the task of sustaining “the community of faith, worship, and discipleship that is gathered by this Gospel” (p. xxiii). Nothing else should supplant this.
But, in addition, Christians “have a responsibility for the right ordering of civil society” (p. xxiii). Because we’re commanded called us to love our neighbor, it’s essential that “we seek to secure for all a greater measure of civil righteousness and justice” (p. xxiii). In their work as citizens, Evangelicals and Catholics have recently discovered what they share. Religious freedom, education, right-to-life issues often elicit common convictions. “Together we contend for the truth that politics, law, and culture must be secured by moral truth” (p. xxiv). It’s clear that “only a virtuous people can be free and just, and that virtue is secured by religion” (ibid).
Unfortunately, in the United States, such principles are being abandoned. “Americans are drifting away from, are often explicitly defying, the constituting truths of this experiment in ordered liberty. Influential sectors of the culture are laid waste by relativism, anti-intellectualism, and nihilism that deny the very idea of truth. Against
such influences in both the elite and popular culture, we appeal to reason and religion in contending for the foundational truths of our constitutional order” (p. xxiv).
One of the casualties of such thinking is the right-to-life guaranteed all persons. Abortion, as much as anything, unites Evangelicals and Catholics, and the document resolutely opposes it. “Our goals are: to secure due process of law for the unborn, to enact the most protective laws and public policies that are politically possible, and to reduce dramatically the incidence of abortion” (p. xxv). All efforts to establish crisis pregnancy centers, to help women facing unwanted pregnancies, are encouraged. Alarmingly, “Abortion is the leading edge of an encroaching culture of death. The helpless old, the radically handicapped, and others who cannot effectively assert their rights are increasingly treated as though they have no rights. These are the powerless who are exposed to the will and whim of those who have power over them. We will do all in our power to resist proposals for euthanasia, eugenics, and population control that exploit the vulnerable, corrupt the integrity of medicine, deprave our culture, and betray the moral truths of our constitutional order” (p. xxv).
Christians must also join together to care for children. Importantly, schools should “transmit to coming generations our cultural heritage, which is inseparable from the formative influence of religion, especially Judaism and Christianity. Education for responsible citizenship and social behavior is inescapably moral education. Every effort must be made to cultivate the morality of honesty, law observance, work, caring, chastity, mutual respect between the sexes, and readiness for marriage, parenthood, and family” (p. xxvi). Importantly, “We contend together for a renewed appreciation of Western culture. In its history and missionary reach, Christianity engages all cultures while being captive to none. We are keenly aware of, and grateful for, the role of Christianity in shaping and sustaining the Western culture of which we are part” (p. xxvii). While open to “the contributions of other cultures and being ever alert to the limitations of our own, we receive Western culture as our legacy and embrace it as our task in order to transmit it as a gift to future generations” (ibid).
The essays included in this volume basically expand and expound upon the above document. Chuck Colson reminds us that Christians are, in fact, embattled in a “culture war.” Primarily this war involves “a clash of worldviews that involves fundamental differences about truth and ultimate reality, the nature of God, the created order, the moral law, and the human condition” (p. 3). Concerning such, Catholics and Evangelicals can fight side-by-side. This especially means they must uphold the centrality, the importance of truth. Is Michael Novak, in his Templeton address, declared: “‘Truth matters'” (p. 4). Influential voices, in academia and media, in politics and courts, insist there is no truth, that everything results from “social construction” or “personal opinion.” Even “evangelical Christians” espouse a relativistic stance, discounting the possibility of “absolute truth.” Such positions, embedded within “postmodernism,” cannot but lead to destruction, for “without a belief in truth, any culture inevitably descends into decay and disorder” (p. 7). Tyranny walks in through doors opened by truth’s departure.
The issue stands starkly revealed in the case of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, a young Polish Catholic priest who weekly preached, from the balcony of his church, to 100,000 people in the early 1980’s. Living under Communist control, knowing the demonic dimensions to a society which denied the truth, they hungered for Father Jerzy’s courageous words. Again and again he would declare: “‘Preach the truth. Defend the truth. Stand for the truth'” (p. 41). For his courage, Father Jerzy was killed in 1984, tortured to death by those who couldn’t stand truth’s light. But his death was one of the events which, in time, destroyed Communism in Poland.
Francis Schaeffer discerned and lamented what the loss of truth was doing to us. To the very last, when he “lay dying of cancer, he declared, ‘The great issue is truth! We have got to defend truth!'” (p. 43). That, Colson says, is one of the great needs of our day. To that task, both Evangelicals and Catholic can give themselves.
George Weigel brings a Catholic lawyer’s perspective to the discussion, lamenting “the governmentally enforced secularization of American public life” which seeks to drive from the public square those with religiously-rooted moral convictions (p. 49). In his judgment, this “is perhaps the moral-cultural issue in American public life” (ibid). There is no doubt, for evidence abounds, that this nation’s courts have systematically sought to eliminate Christianity from the nation’s institutions. In the startling summation of legal scholar Russell Hittinger, the Supreme Court, for 40 years, has clearly decreed that “‘Religion is a potentially dangerous and harmful phenomenon. It is apt to engender divisiveness, even homicidal urges, in the political community. It threatens the psychological health and development of children. It tends to subvert the ordinary meanings and values of life. It is not rational, but rather subjective and idiosyncratic. it is contrary to the institutions of democracy. And whatever reality it has, it tends to elude even the most ordinary dictionary definitions” (p. 53). Having abandoned any reliance upon either divine law (the Ten Commandments cannot even grace courtroom walls) or natural law (there are no self-evident truths), jurists openly “make up the law” to suit their social conscience. The only real authority, “according to the justices, is the satisfaction of the unencumbered, autonomous, self-constituting Imperial Self: the great god I” (p. 61).
So how should Christians respond? In part, they need to re-root their own thought in the natural law, then make it clear why it’s essential for our constitutional republic, including our legal system. Since “abortion-rights” lie at the heart of the massive shift in jurisprudence, a consistent, coherent, persuasive position opposing abortion must be articulated. The positions espoused by Pope John Paul II, in encyclicals such as Veritatis Splendor, could easily bring Evangelicals and Catholics together. Self-evidently, as John Paul insists, “‘If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people'” (p. 76).
Wheaton’s Mark Noll, probably the most eminent Evangelical historian today, contributes a helpful essay which explains why Evangelicals and Catholics, utterly at odds 50 years ago, have come together in rather dramatic ways. In part, this is because Catholics began to understand “born again” terminology, while Evangelicals began to grasp the fact that Catholics do believe they’re saved by grace. They discovered they both believed in important doctrines such as the Virgin Birth and Resurrection–while “liberal” Protestants made a career out of denying them. Vatican II acknowledged Protestants as “separated brethren,” and Billy Graham featured Catholic prelates on his crusade platforms. Hardened battlelines began to dissolve. Evangelicals began reading Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen; Catholics read Richard Foster and Chuck Swindall. Everyone read G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. And the Bible! Realms of commonality became evident.
Citing the words of another contributor to this volume, Noll says J.I. Packer “spotlighted this issue well by pointing to ‘the currently urgent task of upholding faith in the Trinity, the Incarnation, the inerrancy of Scripture, and the primacy of the evangelistic and pastoral imperative according to Scripture, against the secularist, relativist and antinomian onslaught to which these thing are being subjected in our time both without and within the churches.'” Packer thinks “‘the cobelligerence of Catholics and Protestants fighting together for the basics of the creed is nowadays more important [than the discussion of individual doctrines], if only because until the cancerous spread of theological pluralism on both sides of the Reformation is stopped, any talk of our having achieved unity of faith will be so irrelevant to the real situation as to be both comic and pathetic'” (p. 107).
Arguably the most highly-regarded Catholic theologian in America, Avery Dulles addresses “The Unity for Which We Hope.” Evangelicals and Catholics share a commitment to the truth of the Gospel and the importance of proclaiming it. They share a commitment to “the canonical Scriptures as a peremptory norm, one that may under no circumstances be contradicted. Holy Scripture therefore provides a common resource for giving specific content to the prayer of Christ for unity” (p. 125). The importance of the sacrament of baptism, establishes yet another bond. Much can be learned, much can be done, to bring the two communities of faith together without demanding any organic unity at the moment.
J.I. Packer discusses “Crosscurrents among Evangelicals,” addressing the fire-storm ignited in some quarters by the very document being discussed. To some Evangelicals, no commonalities, much less concessions, should be granted Roman Catholics. Packer thus identifies the essential claims which characterize Evangelicals–the sufficiency of Scripture, the “majesty” of the Incarnate and Resurrected Lord Jesus, the necessity of conversion, etc. He then notes some Catholic positions, i.e. transubstantiation, which Evangelicals have always rejected. Despite their differences, Packer argues they share an authentic commitment to the essentials of the Christian Faith and can, without compromise, agree to work together in the public square.
In the final essay, Richard John Neuhaus, the guiding light of the endeavor, stresses its uniqueness. What might happen, he wonders, if the divisions of the past 500 years could be overcome in the next century? Disunited as Christians are, most of us “recognize that there is but one church of Christ. There is one church because there is one Christ and the church is his body” (p. 192). “The Church is conceived and constituted Christologically. ‘Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church,’ declared Saint Ignatius of Antioch already in the first century” (ibid).
Neuhaus also finds, significantly, a rich pattern for us in the person of John Wesley. After underscoring the essentials of the Apostles’ Creed, Wesley said: “‘Let the points wherein we differ stand aside: here are enough wherein we agree, enough to be the ground of every Christian temper and of every Christian action. O brethren, let us not still fall out by the way: I hope to see you in heaven. And if I practice the religion above described [the Creed], you dare not say I shall go to hell. You cannot think so. None can persuade you to it. your own conscience tells you the contrary. then it we cannot as yet think alike in all things, at least we may love alike. Herein we cannot possibly do amiss. For of one ponit none can doubt a moment: God is love; and he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God, and God in him'” (p. 211).
Wesley! The “evangelical catholicism” so marked in Wesley should encourage us to work together. Indeed, as Neuhaus concludes this volume: “Far from being an initiative that is abrupt and premature, ECT is simply catching up, two centuries later, with John Wesley and other defining figures of world evangelicalism” (p. 211). It seems to me, reading this volume, that we Nazarenes (and Wesleyans in general) could play a vital role in the century to come! Were we to join Neuhaus and the signatories of ECT, providing theological texture and witness, perhaps our influence could transcend our numbers!
# # #