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Evangelical-Roman Catholic relationships

July 2004 | by Eryl Davies

The subject is a crucial one. It is also extremely relevant and pressing. As one might expect, it is a controversial subject too. I am referring to Evangelical-Roman Catholic relationships.

No, I am not reporting on the latest Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) developments or questionable appointments to evangelical agencies. My intention this month is to review a new and important book which has been published recently. The book is Evangelical theological perspectives on post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism by Leonardo De Chirico (Peter Lang, vol.19, Oxford, 2003).

Theological issues

The author has good credentials. An uncompromising Evangelical with Reformed convictions, he is currently a church planter and also Adjunct Director of the increasingly influential Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione (IFED) in Padova, Italy. He is also editor of IFED’s theological journal Studi di Teologia.

Having taught the author in Wales and participated in an IFED annual conference in Padova recently, I thank God for the valuable contribution Leonardo De Chirico and IFED are making in encouraging the growth and renaissance of Italian Evangelicalism.

This book is a revised version of his PhD thesis, which was approved early in 2003 by the University of London (Kings College).

It is not an easy read. While it is well written, the book is demanding in terms of the theological issues and approaches which are discussed in detail.

In essence, ‘this is a book on Evangelical theology’ (p. 27). Although the focus is on the way Evangelical theologians have approached and assessed post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, yet the main subject for the author is contemporary Evangelical theology. For that reason alone the book is important for us – it is an essential read for church leaders who want to understand the subject.

In order to convey more simply the subject of the book and its complex background and context, we will ask a number of questions.

What was Vatican II Council?

This was a council held for several weeks at a time between 1962 and 1965 at which all RC bishops, archbishops, cardinals and the pope met to discuss the pastoral and theological needs of their church. Some of the decisions made there and the documents approved represented a significant change in attitude, belief and practice for worldwide Catholicism. Vatican I Council was held in 1870.

How do Evangelicals view Catholicism?

Evangelical attitudes towards Roman Catholicism vary. Some adopt the view that the long conflict between Evangelicals and Catholics is coming to ‘its final stage’ (p.13) and that this calls for dialogue and co-operation, at least at an informal level.

Others insist that opposition towards Rome should be continued. We are warned, however, that the situation is more complicated than this, since there are several intermediate positions taken by some Evangelicals.

Where does this book fit into the picture?

This will become clearer later, but the author’s concern is that whatever position one adopts towards Rome, ‘it is necessary to pursue a theological analysis centred on what is really at stake in an Evangelical appraisal of Roman Catholicism’ (p.14).

In other words, the author counsels against ‘random’ responses and ‘theological naivety’ on our part. He is eager for us to perceive and assess Catholicism as a system, one that is ‘multidimensional yet unitary’.

Besides De Chirico, other theologians who have interacted with Roman Catholicism and its theology over the past 40 years include Gerrit Berkouwer (1903-1996), Cornelius van Til (1895-1987), David Wells (b.1939), Donald Bloesch (b.1928), Herbert Carson and John Stott (b.1921). I will return to them later.

What dialogues have taken place?

Can we specify what dialogue ventures have taken place between Evangelicals and post-Vatican II Catholicism? Yes, that is quite easy. But keep three important dates in mind here.

These dates are 1965 when Vatican II ended; 1966 when the famous Berlin Congress on Mission was held; and the convening of the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation in 1974. The last two were confined to Evangelicals and had a worldwide influence.

I think the author is correct in claiming that these two congresses also gave ‘a new impulse’ (p.20) to the then strained relationship between Evangelicals and Catholics.

Between 1977 and 1984 a group of Evangelicals and Catholics met three times for an intensive dialogue on mission (p.114) with a special focus on key terms like ‘mission’, ‘salvation’, ‘conversion’ and possible joint witness. This dialogue is known as ERCDOM.

Is the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF) involved?

From 1978 dialogue with Roman Catholicism became ‘a significant issue and a highly controversial one’ (p.122) for WEF. It was at WEF’s Seventh General Assembly in the UK in 1978 that delegates were surprised to find two RC observers present – even giving greetings from the platform.

Some delegates were outraged and there was heated discussion over the matter. The protesters felt that the presence of the RC observers implied ‘a clear stamp of approval of the post-Vatican II Roman Church which had neither been agreed nor voted by the WEF constituency’.

As a follow-up, WEF appointed a Task Force to elaborate an evangelical analysis of Roman Catholicism and suggest the type of relationship WEF should seek with it. Their mandate was clear: ‘to study afresh different aspects of Roman Catholic theology and practice as they relate to biblical principles and the evangelical community’ (p.123).

It was six years before the Task Force drafted a working document, which the eighth WEF General Assembly in Singapore in 1986 approved. A year later in 1987 WEF published its Evangelical perspective on Roman Catholicism.

Intended to reassure Evangelicals yet acknowledge changes within Rome in a non-academic way, Perspective was generally welcomed.

Ongoing dialogue between WEF and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity involved meetings in 1988 and 1990. There have also been ‘Consultations’ – 1993 on ‘Justification, Scripture and Tradition’ and 1997 on ‘The Nature and Mission of the Church’.

Subsequent consultations in 1999 and 2001 focused on co-operation in mission, with particular attention to problems like proselytism and religious freedom (p.140). Another was held in 2002.

How significant is WEF?

WEF is made up of 112 national Evangelical alliances worldwide, which together represent over 150 million Evangelicals. Perhaps it is the one group which can be regarded as the worldwide ‘umbrella body for Evangelicals’ (p.119).

WEF is certainly a significant group and its ongoing ‘official dialogue’ (p.152) with the Roman Catholic Church causes concern to some members and requires monitoring.

Where does ECT fit into this picture?

‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ (ECT)is a different initiative and its background is North America and the 1980s.

In fact, ECT is ‘a sort of ecumenism of the trenches born out of a common moral struggle in American society to proclaim and implement at all levels the Christian heritage and values in a culture in disarray’ (p.146).

The ‘common moral struggle’ involved issues like abortion, pornography, homosexuality, euthanasia, the family unit and education. ECT has been described as an ‘ecumenical jihad’ against a secular culture.

Their doctrinal basis for this reaffirmed unity is the Apostles’ Creed, although they acknowledge there are still deep differences which need to be dealt with.

It is important to be aware of two ECT documents. The first was published in 1994 entitled Evangelicals and Catholics together while the second in 1997, The gift of salvation, was a statement attempting to discuss the crucial doctrine of justification by faith.

Finally, how have Evangelicals reacted?

Evangelicals have criticised The gift of salvation (GOS), charging ECT representatives with ‘selling out the Reformation’ (p.160). Again, GOS fails ‘adequately to express the essential Protestant understanding of the gospel’.

That is a serious and valid charge. What Evangelical critics rightly argue is that GOS fails to wrestle with the doctrine of imputation. Allow me to put the point simply. Forgiveness of sins is only a part of justification by faith. In addition, God imputes to the believer Christ’s righteousness. Christ kept the law and God reckons that righteousness to the believer’s account. Justification is not my action but God’s – on the sole ground of Christ’s active obedience and substitutionary death on the cross.

This is the heart of the gospel. And we dare not compromise it. Against this background, next month we will outline and assess the message of this important book.