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Closer together?

August 1998 | by Tony Baxter

In December 1997 another phase of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement unfolded with the publication in the USA of a document entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Gift of Salvation. The 8 December 1997 issue of Christianity Today carried the two-page document in full along with what was somewhat imprecisely called ‘An Evangelical Assessment’ by Timothy George, one of the ‘Evangelical’ signatories.

Readers may recall that the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement first came into prominence in March 1994 with the publication of Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millenium. In the four or so intervening years, those involved in the movement have not been idle. They have issued various other statements which sought either to clarify or justify statements made in the original document. They have also held numerous conferences and in 1995 they published a major book entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Working Toward a Common Mission.

Verbal gymnastics

What of this latest document? Its aim is to further clarify two key issues of the original 1994 publication, namely, justification by faith and co-operation of Evangelicals with Roman Catholics in evangelism. It was the position taken on these two issues in the 1994 document that raised so much consternation among Evangelicals. By far the largest part of this new document is devoted to the former subject, and little that is new is said with respect to the second of these two issues, the present article will concentrate on what is said about justification.

In his covering article Timothy George states, ‘We reject the kind of ecumenical euphoria that assumes the way to peace in the church is to downplay doctrine and theology. We are committed to an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation.’ In spite of these commendable sentiments, however, we find in this document the same kind of verbal gymnastics that are common within ecumenism and, indeed, essential to it. The game is to find a form of words to which both sides can agree, while at the same time disagreeing profoundly about either the meaning and interpretation of the words used, or the realities to which they point.

The document under review is very adept at playing this game. A superficial reading might lead the unwary to think that the Evangelical Protestant doctrine of justification has triumphed, and been accepted by the Roman Catholics involved. If this were the case, Evangelicals would have much cause to rejoice. It would mean that significant progress had been made by the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement. The only question might be: ‘How can the Roman Catholic signatories continue to remain Roman Catholic?’

Anathemas from Trent

Unfortunately, they can easily do so because the Evangelical Protestant doctrine of justification has not triumphed. There is nothing in this statement that contradicts traditional Roman Catholic dogma. In fact, the document does not take us beyond even the Council of Trent itself. Everything said with respect to the doctrine of justification can be directly supported from the decrees of the Sixth Session of that Council. Yet in its ninth and eleventh Canons, the Council of Trent pronounced an anathema on the distinctive aspects of the Reformers’ doctrine of justification. This read as follows:

‘If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema’ (Canon 9).

‘If anyone says that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and remains in them, or also that the grace by which we are justified is only the good will of God, let him be anathema’ (Canon 11).

The real issue

We need to remember that the real issue between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church was not the doctrine of justification as such. Rome also taught justification, and, to some extent, justification by faith (though not by faith alone). No, the real issue concerned the grounds on which, and the means by which, an individual is justified. In other words, the great divide between the Reformers and the Roman Catholics came over the doctrine of imputation.

Rome taught (and still teaches) that a person is justified, or declared righteous, by God because righteousness is infused into him. The Reformers, on the other hand, taught that we are justified because our sins are imputed to Christ and his righteousness is imputed to us. For the Roman Catholic Church, the person justified actually possesses his own righteousness and is declared just on the basis of that. For the Reformers, the basis of justification is Christ’s righteousness.

A righteousness not our own

This is why Luther claimed that the sinner’s justification is on the basis of an ‘alien righteousness’ – that is, the righteousness by which we are justified is never our own, but always Christ’s. Luther also spoke of Christians being at once completely righteous and completely sinful; in themselves completely sinful, but in Christ completely righteous. This was the righteousness the apostle Paul desired when he sought to ‘be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith’ (Philippians 3:9). This is the righteousness by which the publican went to his house justified, whereas the Pharisee with his own righteousness did not (Luke 18:10-14). That this, rather than the Roman Catholic doctrine, is the biblical doctrine of justification can be seen from many Scriptures (for example, Psalm 32:2; Isaiah 53:11; Acts 13:39; Romans 3:24-30; 4:5-8; 5:1, 9; 8:3, 4: 33; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Galatians 2:16).

If, as they assert, the Evangelicals and Roman Catholics involved in producing The Gift of Salvation have reached a common understanding on the doctrine of salvation, why is it that imputation is only mentioned once in the document, and then only as an issue which still divides the two sides? This document moves the contributors no closer to a common understanding of salvation, and the doctrine of justification in particular, than did the Council of Trent.

Misleading statements

It is important to highlight two particularly misleading statements made in the document. The first is that ‘In justification, God, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, declares us to be no longer his rebellious enemies but his forgiven friends, and by virtue of his declaration it is so.’ On the face of it, this seems very like the Evangelical Protestant doctrine of justification by imputation, but a more careful analysis of the sentence shows that it is actually worlds away from it.

The words ‘in justification’ can be taken to mean that what is being asserted here is only one aspect among others of what takes place in an overall process of justification. The idea of justification as a process is Roman Catholic. For the Evangelical Protestant, justification is a once-for-all act of God. Again, notice what they say. God declares – that justified sinners are ‘no longer his rebellious enemies but his forgiven friends’. The Reformers would have said that God declares the sinner both forgiven and accepted as perfectly righteous. The document under review, therefore, stops short of the Reformers’ biblical doctrine of justification, since it mentions only the forgiveness of sins (something no self-respecting Roman Catholic would reject). Note also that although justification is said to be ‘on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone’, we are not told how we are justified by Christ’s righteousness. The Reformers taught that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us and received by faith alone.

As Evangelicals we would indeed rejoice if the Roman Catholics in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement embraced the definition of justification given in question thirty-three of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. But they cannot do so, for that definition reads: ‘Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.’

Reformation traditions?

A second misleading statement is found in the following words: ‘We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).’ But what does the phrase ‘Reformation traditions’ mean? Or rather what did the authors of this document mean by it? If they meant the various creeds, confessions and writings of the Evangelical Protestant Reformers, why did they not say so? We fear they did not say so because they did not mean so. The documents of the Council of Trent, the teachings of Ignatius Loyola, the Creed of Pope Pius IV could all be considered ‘Reformation traditions’, because they date from the era of the Reformation. We suspect that the authors deliberately left the point open so that Evangelicals might read the phrase one way, and Roman Catholics the other. Both, therefore, may read into the document their own understandings of justification by faith alone.

In using such an ambiguous phrase, the authors of The Gift of Salvation have, perhaps unwittingly, given the game away. What they say about justification is indeed in agreement with ‘Reformation traditions’ – both Protestant and Roman Catholic! And after all, the problem lies not in what the document says, but what it leaves unsaid.

The movement will not go away

In conclusion there are two points which it is important to make. The first is that Evangelicals and Catholics Together is a definite movement with a definite aim of working towards visible unity with Roman Catholics. This has been clear from the inception of the movement. Those who produced the 1994 statement made a definite resolve, not only to reduce conflict between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals, but to eliminate it. Concerned Evangelicals should realize that this movement will not simply go away. It will influence Evangelicals world-wide. If we are to resist the intrusion of this movement into our churches we must warn our people against the errors of Rome. We must preach and teach the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone with greater clarity, emphasizing that justification is based solely on the imputed righteousness of Christ.

The second point is that this document does indeed represent a coming together of Evangelicals and Catholics, but it does so at the expense of the Evangelical Protestant doctrine of justification. It does not involve the movement of Roman Catholics towards the truth, but rather a movement of Evangelical Protestants away from the biblical doctrine of justification by faith.