Evangelicals and Catholics Together:
A New Initiative or Further Confusion?
"The Gift of Salvation"
John H. Armstrong
Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical periodical of North America, hails the newly released document, "The Gift of Salvation," by saying it is "a remarkable statement on what we mean by the gospel." This document, following in the wake of the now famous Evangelicals and Catholics Together (1994), was published initially in November. This new statement is, as was also true with the previous ECT document, an "unofficial" statement signed by a number of prominent evangelical and Roman Catholic spokesmen. (One wonders if this new statement will become known as ECT II?) As with the ECT statement this document is the result of collaboration by such leaders as Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, the former Lutheran now Catholic priest, who serves as editor of the valuable periodical, First Things.
This new statement is more clearly and forthrightly a doctrinal statement that the earlier one. Attempts are made in this statement to address the central theological problem raised by the first initiative, namely in what sense do we share a common doctrine of salvation? The statement openly concludes that justification is by faith alone (sola fide), as well as by grace alone. These truths, it is said, constitute an agreed upon scriptural understanding of salvation in Christ. The document amazingly states that: "We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide). . . " Elsewhere it adds, "We agree that justification is not earned by any good works or merits of our own, it is entirely God's gift."1
Not surprisingly, Dwayne Hastings, writing for a Baptist Press November 13 news release on this statement, headlined the entry by writing: "Reformers' View of Salvation Embraced by Catholic Theologians." Richard John Neuhaus commented, "This is the first time that evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics have publicly agreed to a common understanding of salvation."2 Maybe, and maybe not.
This new initiative flows out of what ECT referred to as a growing "convergence and cooperation" between Catholics and evangelicals in the public arena. The notion of "co-belligerence" (a term coined by Francis Schaeffer) has drawn many Roman Catholics and evangelicals into alliances that go far beyond the original intent of the term "co-belligerence." Now we have serious evangelical leaders drafting significant ecumenical documents with serious Roman Catholics. (It is important to note that no bishops or cardinals, and no representative theologians or the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church, are involved in signing this statement.) Whatever else we may say, this document appears to be a first, at least in terms of how much some respected evangelicals are willing to grant in reaching this new "convergence."
Efforts to resolve historic disagreements regarding the doctrine of salvation are not new. Most of these could not have happened before Vatican II (1962-65). The most recent high level ecumenical accord came just this past year when Lutheran and Roman Catholic theologians issued a proposal for a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. this declaration, approved in August by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA), had been previously endorsed by delegates to the Lutheran Word Federation in July. This declaration will be studied by other member Lutheran churches as well as by the Vatican in coming months. The statement calls for seeing the old condemnations and anathemas, of the reformation era, "in a new light." In fact, the Lutheran-Roman Catholic declaration states that the old condemnations no longer apply. (i.e. the 33 anathemas of the famous council of Trent might be removed, in some sense, without intentionally admitting that they were ever wrong in the first place!)
John Reumann, professor emeritus of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, has been active in these dialogues since 1965. In a recent article in the liberal magazine, The Christian Century, Reumann writes that "The Reformation breach on these points has, apparently, been healed. What has brought about such a change?" In Reumann's words, "What allows old anathemas to be transcended?"3
He suggests several reasons for this conclusion. First, there has been the impetus of a century long ecumenical effort. the fruit of this effort can now be seen in how we address our most fundamental differences regarding the doctrine of salvation. In addition to this, serious biblical studies, among both Protestant and Catholic scholars, have borne fruit. Studies of words like "righteousness" and the important term "the righteousness of God" have likewise have helped. Reumann correctly notes that Vatican II "said little about justification, but it set a mood that made discussion of this old point of division inevitable." In addition to these factors he cites the work of Catholic theologians such as Karl Rahner and others. A result of these efforts was a series of talks in the late 70's and early 80's. Out of these came a volume entitled, Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue (1985) which produced a common statement regarding salvation. This statement included a one-sentence affirmation which said, "our entire hope of justification and salvation" rests on "God's promise and the saving work in Christ" as "our ultimate trust."4
In the 1997 Joint Declaration we see the harvest of these earlier efforts according to Reumann. Here those things agreed upon are now brought together in on joint statement. Seven topics of past disagreements are presented and in each case the statement says, "we confess together. . ." Following this are several aspects of both Lutheran and Catholic teaching. Lutherans confess, for example, "that good works follow justification. . . and are its fruits." Catholics confess that "justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace."5
The sticking point came when simul justus et peccator was considered, i.e. the Protestant doctrine that a person is simultaneously just before God (as just as he will ever be) and sinful.
This Joint Declaration allows the anathemas of the sixteenth century to remain on the books. The document states that they are "salutary warnings" to which teaching and preaching must attend.
We have now learned that privately a number of evangelicals were busily involving themselves in their own attempt to deal with many of the same concerns. Not only are such efforts not new, but a lesson from church history serves us well at this point.
What should be noted, with regard to the Joint Declaration and "The Gift of Salvation," is that this is not the first time Roman Catholics have agreed with the language of sola fide, even though the Council of Trent condemned the terminology. At Regensburg, or Ratisbon, in 1541, the Emperor Charles V invited three Lutheran evangelicals and three Roman Catholic theologians to consider a way for healing the breach in the German church. Cardinal Gasparo Contarini, the papal legate in Germany at the time, openly expressed his belief "that the Lutheran concern for justification by faith was in fact the essence of the Catholic faith also." What Contarini meant was that Protestantism was essentially Catholic! His argument, made by many then and since, was that the Protestant schism had been caused principally "by a misunderstanding of Catholicism."6
Before this sixteenth century ecumenical meeting took place Luther was suspicious of the whole effort. The six men who met did reach an agreement. They issued a statement and mutually agreed to sola fide. Luther was aghast with their statement. He had previously warned that to go back one iota on the wording of the Augsburg Confession would invite catastrophe. But why was Luther hostile toward such an effort for unity, especially when it seemed to bring about an agreement on sola fide? The answer to this question provides material for reflection in regard to present efforts behind "The Gift of Salvation."
Many will no doubt say, "Isn't it enough that we all agree salvation is "by grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone?" If we agree on such essential (Protestant) truths aren't we now in basic agreement, except for some less essential differences? (This is, in fact, how this new statement argues the case for a common salvation.) Can't we say that now we have theological unity in the gospel, at least between some evangelicals and some roman Catholics? If we can agree on these essential items then the Reformation debate, for all intents and purposes, must be over, or so it would seem. At least the possibility is near. but just a minute. Don't rush to conclusions too quickly.
Luther, as noted, was profoundly agitated with the Regensburg agreement. In strongly rejecting it he wrote:
Luther said this precisely because he knew the Regensburg articles were dangerously, even intentionally, ambiguous. Many argued that Regensburg was a victory because nothing in it explicitly denied the doctrine of the Reformers regarding salvation. But James Buchanan has noted that Luther rejected the statement because it failed to plainly state that the converted Christian is acceptable to God solely because of Christ's imputed rightousness.8 The agreement made it clear that no unconverted person could be saved on the basis of merit in himself. Furthermore, it taught that only through imputed righteousness could the sinner be brought to God and true saving grace. However, ambiguous wording made it possible for the converted person to eventually become acceptable to God by virtue of an infused or transformative righteousness.
It is intriguing that the New Catholic Encyclopedia notes that Cardinal Contarini taught a theory called "double justification" which did not directly deny imputed righteousness but at the same time attributed to infusion a prominent role in man's final acceptance (i.e. sanctification helps to secure final justification in some way.)9
Luther, understanding what was truly at stake in this debate, said that if we are not saved entirely because of Christ alone, and solely on the basis of the imputation of His righteousness, then we are not yet saved and have not yet understood the gospel. I believe documents like "The Gift of Salvation" create exactly the same confusion that Luther saw in the Regensburg statement. A document such as "The Gift of Salvation" should not to be read just for what it says but also for what it does not say. What is left out of such a statement is as crucial as what is included. But what is said here is bad. This effort to bring us together, in regards to a more common view of salvation by grace, is provocative. It is also extremely dangerous. The cause of the gospel in wider evangelicalism will be materially altered by this kind of agreement. and when the leading evangelical publication in the world takes on the cause we have every reason to fear for broader evangelicalism itself. Let me explain why this is so.10
In the case of this new evangelical/Catholic document the emphasis on co-belligerency has clearly resulted in an affirmation of unity which accepts the actual slogans of the Reformation without agreeing on the actual content of the slogans. All who know the debate of the sixteenth century, and the resultant issues which remain, realize that the whole point of sola fide is found in the doctrine of the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the believer. As the Reformers put it, it is the righteousness of Christ which saves us extra nos (apart from us, outside of us), not the righteousness which is put inside of us through the Spirit's work. Put imply, do the works of the law, done by us out of transformed hearts, contribute anything to our being made right before God? This was the Reformation question. It still is the essential question.
Make no mistake about it, we are not dealing with a minor issue here. This is no tempest in a teapot, as some will no doubt cry. The gospel itself hangs in the answer to this question, as serious historians and biblical exegetes have understood. But "The Gift of Salvation," after affirming sola fide in a manner that will prompt many to think the Roman Catholic signers have actually embraced the theology of the Reformers, includes the following statement in the third paragraph from the end:
This statement, in effect, undoes any possible agreement regarding sola fide. But why?
If we allow for a common view regarding justification that does not specifically embrace imputation, but rather allows for what is to be called "transformative righteousness," then we have missed the whole point. Sola Fide is made an empty slogan by such reasoning. What this statement is saying is that we can have sola fide and we can also have disagreement between us over the central issue of the Reformation, at one and the same time. If the alien righteousness of Christ is the singular ground of my salvation, and the consequent assurance of my pardon, then "transformative righteousness," a most distinctly Roman Catholic term (which stands for infusion in the older sense), can never be allowed.
What this phrase does, in short, is make this new document even more dangerous than ECT. Regensburg was actually closer to the gospel than this new statement and Regensburg settled nothing.
In the first ECT we had a rather ambiguous, at times clumsy, attempt to show how evangelicals and Roman Catholics could share alliances and maintain their differences. The doctrine of salvation was not plainly stated as the ground for sharing in this common faith. In this new statement the whole ground has shifted and thus the stakes are even more serious. In "The Gift of Salvation" we are told that we have a common ground in the very nature of the gospel of grace. But Catholics have argued this way for centuries. The reason evangelicals are now prepared to listen is because they are actually closer to the theological beliefs of Rome than they are to those of their Protestant forefathers.
The obvious point to be observed is that this new statement will give multitudes of people the false assurance that what evangelicals and Roman Catholics have disagreed over for nearly 500 years has been settled, at least in large measure. The fact that major language translations are planned will only add to the confusion. (In the case of ECT the document was used against evangelicals in Latin America and elsewhere in an attempt to stop roman Catholics from leaving their church for evangelical churches. I know this through firsthand observation in Brazil.)
If this new statement is followed, we will use the slogans of the Reformers without their clear intention. By this means we can all agree that we are one in the gospel of grace. But no one should even begin to imagine that the divide created by the Council of Trent has now been spanned in 1997. If the Catholic signers of this document really mean what they say regarding faith alone then the questions I ask them are: "When will you abandon the Roman doctrine of the mass?" Furthermore, "When will you affirm simul justus et peccator? (This, as many of the readers of this publication will no doubt understand, is the doctrine no Roman Catholic will ever be able to genuinely affirm and still remain a confessing Roman Catholic.) And, further, "When will you openly abandon the continued use of Trent's formulations as restated in the modern Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church in its approved and official teaching on salvation?" There is simply no hard evidence that Rome is abandoning Trent, at least not in the way that evangelicals think of abandoning false doctrine. There is every reason to be extremely careful in regards to these efforts to find a common faith in a postmodern world, when the way in which we speak and think has been so radically altered.
How much better is the short but straightforward article on sola fide in The Cambridge Declaration (1996). Here we read:
This article of faith clearly states that without substitution an imputation there is "no gospel." We cannot speak of a common doctrine of salvation without these twin truths. This the very heart of what it meant historically to be called an evangelical. Evangelicals shared the gospel in common, even though thy often disagreed among themselves regarding matters such as sacraments and ecclesiology. Indeed, the title evangelical has no significant meaning left if substitution and imputation are surrendered.
The framers and signers of The Cambridge Declaration concluded thesis four with this summary:
Note how The Cambridge Declaration both affirms and denies. This is one of the critical differences between this 1996 evangelical declaration and "The Gift of Salvation." Furthermore, see that The Cambridge Declaration denies that an institution can rightly be treated as a church if it still clings to infusion, or what "The Gift of Salvation" terms "transformative righteousness."
One signer, who is of Reformed theological persuasion, has written that he is committed to "an ecumenism of conviction," not one of "accommodation." I sincerely believe he means this. I also doubt that all of those who signed this statement are of the same mindset or that they have his understanding of the background. Why?
The nature of modern theologizing is to address the unreconciled diversity of American evangelicalism by seeking new ways in which we can "get along" rather the old ways through which we sought to find agreement through the careful use of words. The old ways sometimes brought a true ecumenism while still respecting significant differences. Fundamentalism did not understand this kind of unity and continually divided over every new issue. Modern evangelicalism has followed a different course. We have increasingly sought for ways to play down our distinctive differences. We hardly know what our differences are these days. We want to work with Roman Catholics in the cause of evangelism. We want to recognize the Roman Catholic Church on equal terms with evangelical churches that have historically confessed the gospel.
This thinking has been growing for fifty years. We have been able to do this because the only article of faith we seem to insist upon is the "new birth." (Catholics have always affirmed the new birth as a renewing and renovating work of the Holy Spirit!) At this time in our history, when our fences need serious mending theologically, we should be weary of such ecumenism. We should be weary for entirely different reasons than those expressed by earlier fundamentalists.
When I asked on evangelical theologian his thoughts regarding this new statement he noted that some feel this new statement might well be an instrument for rescuing several evangelical organizations (who engage in evangelism as their primary purpose). Isn't it ironic that we need a seriously flawed statement to protect evangelicals from their own shallow and confused understanding of sola fide?
Most evangelicals do not know what justification actually means, much less what the issues were that divided us from Roman Catholicism in the first place. Not knowing our own history and the reasons for profound differences, we can, in a few short pages, heartily agree to recognize oneness with Roman Catholics in "The Gift of Salvation." I have no doubt Luther would be amazed, but definitely not surprised.
If the truths of faith and grace are now celebrated by these Roman Catholics what does this mean for their Magisterium, the official teaching body of their church? I s Christ alone able to intercede for them at God's right hand or do they still need another mediator (or intercessor) in heaven besides Christ? Do these Catholic signers believe that by taking the host they receive the grace of God in salvation? (The statement clearly infers that they still believe this Catholic dogma.) These questions remain precisely because of the admissions cited above. Until we get imputation right we will have no common doctrine of salvation.
I can find no room for celebration in the publication of this statement. I find room only for shock and horror. This document will cause new confusion and deeper division within evangelicalism. If a book is to follow, as is promised, then the divide will grow even more serious in the next few years. One consolation exists - more and more people will be forced to deal with the nature of the gospel message. One can only cry for reformation and revival in the midst of the confusion.
Finally, I ask, "What exactly is the agenda of Richard John Neuhaus?" Why are several of these men, some of whom have had private audience with the Pope (e.g. Neuhaus, etc.), so eager to get evangelicals onto the ecumenical stage with them? A recent AP news release tells of Pope John Paul's hopes to bring erstwhile Catholics back into the fold of the church. He urged Catholic bishops in North America to work with fresh missionary zeal. The Pope told the bishops, "The objective is to diffuse ever more the evangelical message" and to help "knock down the walls of separation between man and man, nation and nation." Isn't it interesting that the pope endorses the popular idea of "tearing down the walls?" If Catholics can somehow seize the missionary initiative, use evangelical methodology that they have seen work so well, and reach statements of agreement with Protestants, then they may well stop some of the exodus and renew their own church. there is no doubt, in the light of the Pope's statements, that this is his goal. Why then is Neuhaus, who left Protestantism deliberately, a kind of spokesman for so many evangelicals and evangelical issues, at least in some unofficial sense? And what is the real purpose of this evangelical/Catholic initiative of the past four years?
"The Doctrine of Salvation" says furthermore:
The problem is not that there are no true believers within the Roman Catholic Church. That has never been the debate. God is the final judge of who, whether Roman Catholic or evangelical, is genuinely trusting Christ alone for salvation. the problem is that those who affirm the theological beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church do not have a gospel that is biblical. We must share the gospel with lost evangelicals but we must make sure it is the gospel that we are preaching to them, not the gospel of Rome, which is no gospel at all.
I am reminded, in all of this, that the Promise Keepers organization inserted a sola fide addition to their doctrinal statement recently. This was done after some questions were raised from Protestant critics. Then, after Roman Catholic criticism of the added words, the leadership removed sola fide. what is amazing is that this back and forth doctrinal change was done within only a matter of months. The way in which we can affirm a truth, and then deny the same truth only weeks later, is staggering. I believe there are profound reasons for maintaining serious suspicion about all of these changes.
Further, this document speaks of evangelicals and Roman Catholics having salvation beliefs in common. Yet it is safe to say that the majority of Roman Catholics, both conservative and liberal, do not share these things in common with evangelicals. It is simply misleading to suggest that this kind of statement is representative of any significant number of Catholics in the real world.
Even more important is the observation, made by a friend who understands these matters quite well, that this document nowhere deals with official roman Catholic teaching on any of the matters cited. Vatican II, which does have official Catholic authority, takes a quite different view in regard to salvation. It teaches that an atheist, without denying his atheism, might be saved by virtue of the grace of God which equips him to live a morally good life.
I wonder, furthermore, what does this whole effort do for the cause of truth and for needed reformation? When Bill Bright wrote of ECT that "The joint statement by evangelical and Catholic believers in our Lord Jesus Christ has enhanced our efforts to reach the masses of the world with the gospel," I was amazed. But when he added, "I have no doubt that the population of heaven will be greatly increased because of this statement," there could be no doubt as to his profound confusion regarding the essential nature of the gospel.11 Truly some Roman Catholic theologians might be closer to understanding grace, at least in several critical areas as touching the nature of grace and the human will, than Dr. Bright.
This new document adds several new evangelical signers who did not endorse the earlier ECT document. Some of these include Timothy George (Beeson Divinity School), Harold O.J. Brown and John Woodbridge (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), Timothy Phillips (Wheaton College), and T.M. Moore (Chesapeake Theological Seminary). Others who signed the first document are also involved in this new statement as well, e.g. Charles Colson, Bill Bright, J.I. Packer, Kent Hill, and Mark Noll.
At Regensburg the Roman Catholic representatives thoroughly renounced every remnant of semi-Pelagianism, something few evangelicals in our time will do. They even agreed on sola fide, something this new statement also attempt to do, yet unsuccessfully. But Luther strongly opposed this doctrinal statement. Regensburg bears a certain strange resemblance to our recent history. Roman Catholic scholars such as Bouyer (another converted Protestant), McSorley, Tavard and Kung have all written things that are very close to what these evangelicals and Catholics have given us. These scholars argued for years that Luther did not reject the "real" Catholic Church. This thinking has been proven bankrupt in the past decade. Yet evangelicals continue to follow the mistakes.
What I fear is missed in these debates is this - Luther always affirmed the imputed righteousness of Christ (i.e. extrinsic justification, not "transformative righteousness") as the heart of the gospel. He properly contended that without this truth there is no gospel at all. A whole generation of evangelicals pay lip service to Luther yet deny the central tenet of his thought.
An evangelical writer of another age wisely wrote:
Has history repeated itself? It would appear so.
This is an amazing admission. It helps the
reader understand something of what is behind this drive for
expressing unity. Our world is changing. Protestant theology
is in disarray and because we have more in common with a devout
Catholic such as Ratzinger, who would affirm the ancient creeds
with us as evangelicals, we can now enter into a deeper unity
on the nature of salvation. This thinking is somewhat akin,
in the political realm, to a citizen of France in the 1930's
saying, "For all our differences, which are still large,
we stand much closer to Mussolini than we do to Hitler!"
Both were a serious threat to the prosperity of France and both
were determined to believe and practice things harmful to the
This article appeared as the editorial in "Viewpoint", January-February 1998, volume 2, No.1. "Viewpoint" is a semi-monthly publication of Reformation and Revival Ministries, PO Box 88216, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188 - (630) 653-4165 - Fax (630) 653-4184. Permission granted by Dr. John H. Armstrong, editor.
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