Evangelicals and Catholics Together: A Post Mortem

2001, 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Since the 1994 publication of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), the evangelical body has been convulsed periodically over the doctrine of justification. The patient, to strain a metaphor, sustained a second attack in 1998 with publication of ECT II or The Gift of Salvation. Those were followed by an attempted remedy, the June, 1999 publication, in Christianity Today, of “The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration.” Not to be upstaged, the mainline Lutherans also signed a pact with Roman Catholics in 2000 known as the “Joint Declaration.”

This series of events has puzzled some Reformed Christians. After all, it had seemed to many Reformed folk over the last 50 years that the evangelicals were our friends. We had an arrangement: the Calvinists wrote the books and the enthusiastic evangelicals did the legwork. In that period we had made common cause with the evangelicals on the doctrine of the truthfulness and reliability of Scripture. One had only to think of the founder of Christianity Today, Carl Henry, author of a massive series of works defending the Scriptures to see the strength of the movement. Yes, we said, we have our differences (e.g., on the church and sacraments) but these evangelicals, we said, are our friends.

There were warning signals however. Decades ago Cornelius Van Til at Westminster Seminary had warned that the Reformed are not really “evangelicals” at all, and that despite the appearance of family relations, there were deep-seated differences. We Reformed, Van Til said, begin with the triune God, with divine revelation and the objective work of Christ for sinners. The evangelicals, he warned, begin with religious experience.

In 1990 Robert Brow published his now infamous essay, in Christianity Today, “Evangelical Megashift” in which he proved Van Til right and signaled a sharp departure from what had long been regarded as evangelical theological norms. One of megashifts touched the doctrine of justification. We need, he said, to leave the cold courtroom metaphor for justification for a warm family analogy to describe our relations with God. We should not think of him as a judge, but as a Father. Sin is not a judicial problem, it is a family problem. God no more excludes people from his family on account of sin than a father throws out his children because they err.

It is not hard to see the fallacies of Brow’s reasoning and the danger of his assumptions. The same God who has judged our sins in the death of Christ has become, for the sake of his justice, our Father (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 26; Romans 8:15-17).

Brow was touting as new nothing more than an elixir made of evangelical pietism, old-fashioned liberal universalism with a dash of Roman Catholic moralism added for flavor. Condemned by many as a seducer, it turns out that Brow was a prophet of a new wave of baby-boomer evangelicals tired not only of their father’s Oldsmobile, but of the Reformation doctrine of justification.

Why were the evangelicals megashifting? As it turns out, according to some historians of American religion, the evangelicals have been since the 18th century, not transformers of culture, nor in antithesis to it, but the products of it. They live in symbiosis with it. As the culture slid into the televised abyss of narcissism, they had to adapt or die. If the culture absolutely rejects a transcendent God or objective reality, the evangelicals had to reject the old Reformed religion in favor of a more marketable commodity. Hence the rise of ECT (1994). Threatened by apparent social decay which could not be halted by Promise Keepers rallies or revivals promised by Campus Crusade for Christ, the evangelicals turned and lifted their eyes to the hills whence comes their help. In this case, they turned not to the sovereign God of the Scriptures but to Rome, the single largest institutional religious presence in American culture. If the evangelicals could sign a detente with Rome, then perhaps they could not only continue to surf the American cultural wave and perhaps even turn the tide. Father Richard John Neuhaus, a relatively recent convert from mainline Lutheranism to Rome was happy to oblige them.

Neuhaus held a series of high level meetings, chiefly with evangelical leader and former Nixon aide, Charles “Chuck” Colson. The two of them developed ECT, a document which purported to end the 400 year old war between Rome and Protestants. What it actually did was ignite a fire storm of protest led by confessional Calvinists.

Prominent evangelical co-signers such as J. I. Packer defended the document. When asked to explain how; having defended stoutly the Reformation doctrines of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone; he could apparently give them all away, Packer responded with an answer which can only be described as the equivalent of saying, “It seemed like the thing to do at the time.”

Still stinging from rebukes by the likes of Mike Horton (now Associate Professor at Westminster Seminary California) and R. C. Sproul, the ECT crowd tried once more to get it right in The Gift of Salvation (1998). This time they addressed directly the matter of justification. They found even more common ground between evangelicals and Rome. Whereas it seemed clear to most that the evangelicals had given up too much in ECT, in The Gift of Salvation, the evangelicals appeared to win the better of it. The Gift of Salvation declared that justification “is not earned by any good works or merits of our own.” It continued, “We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).” It even used the expression, “justified sinners,” something which some felt no honest Roman Catholic could ever subscribe.

The list of signatories was truly impressive. Among them were Harold O. J. Brown, Os Guinness, Richard Mouw, Mark Noll and, of course J. I. Packer. There was, however, ambiguity in the statement. One part of the document seemed to create the impression of a Roman Catholic capitulation to the Protestant doctrine, but a later passage asserts that there continues to be questions about “the historic uses of the language of justification as it relates to imputed and transformative righteousness.”

Confessional Reformed folk were also troubled by key omissions. For example, though one paragraph emphasizes that we are just before God on the basis of “Christ’s righteousness alone” by virtue of God’s declaration, the statement does not use the language of imputation. Since Rome has always believed that salvation is by God’s transforming grace (Council of Trent 6.7), this is a significant omission. Indeed, the language of imputation occurs only in a section of denials. What the Roman signatories, chief among them Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy papal legate to the evangelicals” gave with one hand, they took away with the other. In effect saying that they retain the right to hold their traditional Tridentine doctrine of justification by sanctification. This was no evangelical victory, rather it only proves that, given the promise of increased social influence, Roman Cardinals can get anxious evangelicals to sign almost anything.

Though the ECT documents may have brought the evangelicals a step closer to Rome, they created a rift between those who signed and those who would not. Into this breach comes The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration. Drafted by evangelical notables such as Don Carson, Harold Myra, J. I. Packer and R. C. Sproul, this document deserves our attention.

If only because it gets right the decisive matter of imputation, Celebration is vastly superior to the two ECT documents. According to Celebration, God justifies sinners by “imputing (reckoning, crediting, counting, accounting) righteousness to them” which benefit they receive “through faith in Christ alone”. It makes clear that sanctification is the fruit of justification and not the ground or instrument of it. The document has a fairly distinctly Reformed tint. For example, it affirms the absolute necessity of teaching the imputation of the active obedience of Christ as part of the Biblical gospel and it rejects categorically the doctrine of the imparting or infusion of justice as the ground of justification.

Perhaps one of the most encouraging signs about this document is the reaction by some evangelicals who feel left out. In Books and Culture, Robert H. Gundry, of Westmont College, lamented not only that not only was he not invited to sign Celebration but also that he would not because it was too Reformed.

There are some weaknesses in Celebration, however. For example, the statement says that it is through the Gospel that we learn, in effect, the greatness of our sin and misery. This, of course, is not correct. We learn of our fallen estate through the Law (HC Q. 3; Romans 3:20). We learn of God’s saving and justifying work for us in Christ through the preaching of the Holy Gospel (HC Q. 65; Romans 10:17). This confusion of Law and Gospel is hard to overlook in a document which seeks to establish for all evangelicals what the Gospel is.

The evangelical convulsions over justification mean this: Van Til was correct. The fundamental principle of the evangelicals, at least in the Modern period, is religious enthusiasm. Because this is so, religious experience trumps truth every time. We, on the other hand, are not revivalists or enthusiasts, that is to say, we are not evangelicals.

It is clear to me that, after hearing and reading the explanations of some of the participants in the ECT process and after talking to others who were at the negotiating table, it is common religious experience, not Biblical and confessional truth which drives them.

Of the writing of books there is no end, nor it seems, is there an end in sight to attempts to unify evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Reformed Christians, however, should not feel left out. The leading lights of the largest segment of evangelicalism, the Arminians are abandoning historic Christianity, including the doctrine of divine foreknowledge. They have always been uneasy with the Reformation. Perhaps the onset of illness in 1994 was really the result some old errors.

As for us and our households, let us confess the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort and leave the signing of endless compromises to the revivalists. The clear Biblical teaching as summarized in in all the Canons, in Confession Articles 22-24 and Catechism Q. 60 is unchanged: The sole ground of our righteousness before God is the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience (Romans 3:27-28; 4:3; Colossians 2:13-15). The sole instrument of our justification is saving faith, which is the gift of God, which looks to Christ and his righteousness alone (Romans 1:17; 3:22; Ephesians 2:8-10). This is what we mean by our solas, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. About these things there must be no doubt in confessional Reformed churches. The evangelical uncertainty about the gospel and the continuing quest for social influence through alliances with Rome should serve as a reminder not to hold these treasures casually.