In the spring of 1994, a group of Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants issued a much-discussed statement, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” (FT, May 1994). That statement, commonly referred to as “ECT,” noted a growing “convergence and cooperation” between Evangelicals and Catholics in many public tasks, and affirmed agreement in basic articles of Christian faith while also underscoring the continuing existence of important differences. The signers promised to engage those differences in continuing conversations, and this has been done in meetings of noted theologians convened by Mr. Charles Colson and Father Richard John Neuhaus. At a meeting in the fall of 1996, it was determined that further progress depended upon firm agreement on the meaning of salvation, and especially the doctrine of justification. After much discussion, study, and prayer over the course of a year, the statement “The Gift of Salvation” was agreed to at a meeting in New York City in October 1997, and published in the January 1998 issue of this journal. The next question taken up by ECT participants was the relationship between Scripture and tradition. The following statement, “Your Word Is Truth,” is the product of intense and extended deliberation and was first published this summer by Eerdmans in a book by the same title. The participants express the hope that those responding with critical evaluations of the statement will consult the scholarly papers prepared for their deliberation and to be found in the book. The ECT project continues and is currently studying Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant understandings of “the communion of saints” (communio sanctorum).” The Editors
Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ prayed for his disciples: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. . . . I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:17,20-21).
We thank God for the years of prayer, study, and conversation in the project known as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” Among the many blessings resulting from this cooperative effort, we note especially our common affirmation of the most central truths of Christian faith, including justification by faith, in the 1997 statement, “The Gift of Salvation.” From the beginning of this venture, and at each step along the way, we have insisted that the only unity among Christians that can be pleasing to God is unity in truth. Therefore, we have understood it to be our duty to note, carefully and clearly, matters both of agreement and of disagreement between Evangelicals and Catholics.
Among matters of utmost importance, and involving both agreements and disagreements, is the question traditionally framed as the relationship between Scripture and tradition. As we have together explored this question, we have prayed for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and we believe that prayer has been answered. We respectfully submit the following considerations and conclusions to the ecclesial communities and transdenominational fellowships of which we are part, with the hope that they will be received and examined as possible contributions to our better understanding of one another and our greater unity in Christ’s truth.
From before the foundation of the world, God has desired a people to share forever in His life and love (Ephesians 1:4). To that end, God disclosed Himself and His loving intention by a sequence of revelatory and redemptive acts that involved the uttering of verbal messages and the producing of written records (Hebrews 1:1). He created a world that bears witness to His glory (Psalm 19:1-6), and when humanity sinfully rebelled against His purpose, He chose Israel to be instructed by word and deed in the ways of covenant fidelity in order to become a light to all the nations (Genesis 12:1-3; Deuteronomy 4:1-8). To this people He promised a Savior, who is Jesus the Christ, the very Word of God who was in the beginning with God, and who is to be recognized and confessed as the Son of God (John 1:1-14). The God of Israel is the One whom Jesus calls Father and teaches us to call Father (John 17:1-5; Matthew 6:6-13). To Jesus’ disciples, and to those who would become disciples through their word, he promised the Spirit to guide them into all truth. Thus the new Israel worshiped, obeyed, and proclaimed the one true GodFather, Son, and Holy Spiritin faith-filled anticipation of participating in the divine life forever (Hebrews 12:18-24; John 16:3; Acts 1:8). Already now, God’s promised redemption is fulfilled in the mediatorial ministry of Jesus Christ that is centered in his cross, resurrection, ascension, present reign, and assured return in glory to establish his eternal kingdom (2 Corinthians 1:19-20).
God gives His people full and final knowledge of His plan of salvation through Jesus Christ. “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son, whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2). The Son sent and sends the Holy Spirit who, bestowing the gift of faith, creates the community of faith for whose unity Jesus prayed. Christ himself is the head and cornerstone of his Church, which is built on the foundation of apostles and prophets. In its understanding, believing, celebrating, living, and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22).
Both Evangelicals and Catholics affirm the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, as set forth in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, but they define the Church and its attributes in distinctive ways. Evangelicals stress the priority of the gospel over the Church whose primary mission is to herald the good news of God’s salvation in Christ. For Evangelicals, the Church as the one body of Christ extending through space and time includes all the redeemed of all the ages and all on earth in every era who have come to living faith in the body’s living Head. Everyone who is personally united to Christ, having been justified by faith alone through his atoning death, belongs to his body and by the Spirit is united with every other true believer in Jesus. Evangelicals maintain that the one Church becomes visible on earth in all local congregations that meet to do together the things that, according to Scripture, the Church does.
Catholics hold that the Church is the body of Christ, a sacramental and mystical communion in which Christ is truly and effectually present and through which his justifying and sanctifying grace is mediated. While Christ is the unique mediator of salvation for all humanity, the Church of Jesus Christ “subsists in” and is most fully and rightly ordered in the Catholic Church, meaning the Church governed by the bishops in communion with the Bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter. Although there have been variations through history in the exercise of that governance, and may be further variations in order to accommodate a fuller expression of Christian unity, Catholics believe that Christ has endowed the Church with a permanent apostolic structure and an infallible teaching office that will remain until the Kingdom is fully consummated.
While Catholics and Evangelicals have not been able to reconcile these different views of the Church, with both communities finding serious aberrations in the ecclesial understanding of the other, as individual believers we do recognize in one another, when and where God so permits it, the evident reality of God’s grace expressed by our trust in Jesus himself as Master and divine Savior. All who truly believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord are brothers and sisters in the Lord even though they are not in full ecclesial fellowship.
In communion with the body of faithful Christians through the ages, we also affirm together that the entire teaching, worship, ministry, life, and mission of Christ’s Church is to be held accountable to the final authority of Holy Scripture, which, for Evangelicals and Catholics alike, constitutes the word of God in written form (2 Timothy 3:15-17; 2 Peter 1:21). We agree that the phrase “word of God” refers preeminently to Jesus Christ (John 1:1,14). It is also rightly said that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the word of God, as is the faithful preaching of the gospel (Acts 6:7; 8:4). Then the canon, the listed set of writings making up the Bible, is recognized by the community of faith as the written word of God, possessing final authority for faith and life. On the extent of the canon we do not entirely agree, though the sixty-six books of the Protestant canon are not in dispute. In every formthe gospel, the preaching of the gospel, and the Scriptures of the Old and New Testamentsthe word of God is in service to Jesus Christ, the Word of God preeminent.
The divinely inspired writings of the New Testament convey the apostolic teaching, which is the authoritative interpretation of God’s revelation in Christ. The early Christian community recognized the authority of the first apostles who planted local churches and urged them to be faithful to the teaching they had received. Still today we possess that apostolic teaching in the New Testament, which, together with the Old Testament of which the New is the authoritative interpretation, is the written word of God. This entire process of the reception and transmission of God’s revelation is the work of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 2 Timothy 3:15-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21).
Evangelicals and Catholics alike recognize the promised guidance of the Spirit in the elucidation and unfolding of apostolic teaching that took place as historic Christian orthodoxy emerged. This continuing work of the Spirit is evident in, for instance, the formulation of the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds, and in the conciliar resolution of disputes regarding the two natures of Christ and the triune life of God. Such development of doctrine, typically in response to grave error and deviant traditions built upon such error, is to be understood not as an addition to the apostolic teaching contained in Holy Scripture but as Spirit-guided insight into the fullness of that teaching. In this way, the Lord has enabled faithful believers both to counter error and to make explicit what is implicit in the written Word of God.
In the course of that same history, and in the context of crises posed by philosophical and cultural changes as well as manifest ecclesiastical corruptions, the question of how to determine authentic apostolic teaching came into intense dispute. The mainline Reformers of the sixteenth century posited what is called the “formal principle,” which holds that the Scriptures are (in the words of the 2000 Amsterdam Declaration) “the inspired revelation of God . . . totally true and trustworthy, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.” The Reformers vigorously protested what they viewed as deviations from biblical teaching, but they never used Scripture to undermine the Trinitarian and Christological consensus of the early Church embodied in the historic creeds that had come down from patristic times. The Reformers stoutly resisted the charge of innovation: they did not seek to found new churches but sought simply to reform the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church on the basis of the word of God.
We who are Evangelicals recognize the need to address the widespread misunderstanding in our community that sola scriptura (Scripture alone) means nuda scriptura (literally, Scripture unclothed; i.e., denuded of and abstracted from its churchly context). The phrase sola scriptura refers to the primacy and sufficiency of Scripture as the theological normthe only infallible rule of faith and practiceover all tradition rather than the mere rejection of tradition itself. The isolation of Scripture study from the believing community of faith (nuda scriptura) disregards the Holy Spirit’s work in guiding the witness of the people of God to scriptural truths, and leaves the interpretation of that truth vulnerable to unfettered subjectivism. At the same time, we insist that all Christians should have open access to the Bible, and should be encouraged to read and study the Scriptures, for in them all that is necessary for salvation is set forth so clearly that the simplest believer, no less than the wisest theologian, may arrive at a sufficient understanding of them.
We who are Catholics must likewise address the widespread misunderstanding in our community that tradition is an addition to Holy Scripture or a parallel and independent source of authoritative teaching. When Catholics say “Scripture and tradition,” they intend to affirm that the lived experience (tradition) of the community of faith through time includes the ministry of faithful interpreters guided by the Holy Spirit in discerning and explicating the revealed truth contained in the written Word of God, namely, Holy Scripture.
Together we affirm that Scripture is the divinely inspired and uniquely authoritative written revelation of God; as such it is normative for the teaching and life of the Church. We also affirm that tradition, rightly understood as the proper reflection of biblical teaching, is the faithful transmission of the truth of the gospel from generation to generation through the power of the Holy Spirit. As Evangelicals and Catholics fully committed to our respective heritages, we affirm together the coinherence of Scripture and tradition: tradition is not a second source of revelation alongside the Bible but must ever be corrected and informed by it, and Scripture itself is not understood in a vacuum apart from the historical existence and life of the community of faith. Faithful believers in every generation live by the memories and hopes of the actus tradendi of the Holy Spirit: this is true whenever and wherever the word of God is faithfully translated, sincerely believed, and truly preached.
We recognize that confessing a high doctrine of the nature and place of Scripture is insufficient without a firm commitment to the intense devotional, disciplined, and prayerful engagement with Scripture. We rejoice to note that in our communities, and in joint study involving people from both communities, such engagement is increasingly common. In this engagement with Scripture, Evangelicals and Catholics are learning from one another: Catholics from the Evangelical emphasis on group Bible study and commitment to the majestic and final authority of the written word of God; and Evangelicals from the Catholic emphasis on Scripture in the liturgical and devotional life, informed by the lived experience of Christ’s Church through the ages.
There always have been, and likely will be until our Lord returns in glory, disputes and disagreements about how rightly to discern the teaching of the Word of God in Holy Scripture. We affirm that Scripture is to be read in company with the community of faith past and present. Individual ideas of what the Bible means must be brought to the bar of discussion and assessment by the wider fellowship.
“The church of the living God is the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Because Christ’s Church is the pillar and bulwark of truth, in disputes over conflicting interpretations of the Word of God the Church must be capable of discerning true teaching and setting it forth with clarity. This is necessary both in order to identify and reject heretical deviations from the truth of the gospel and also to provide sound instruction for passing on the faith intact to the rising generation.
Evangelicals and Catholics alike are concerned with these questionsWhat does the Bible authoritatively teach? And how does Christ’s Church apply this teaching authoritatively today? Catholics believe that this teaching authority is invested in the Magisterium, namely, the Bishop of Rome, who is the successor of Peter, and the bishops in communion with him. Some Evangelicals see the communal office of discerning and teaching the truth in the covenanted congregation of baptized believers, while others see it in a wider synodical or episcopal connection. In either case, however, Evangelicals believe that a true understanding of the Bible is achieved only through the illuminating action of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, all attempts at discernment and teaching must rely on prayerful attentiveness to the guidance of the Spirit in the study of Scripture.
While Catholics agree that the entire community of the faithful is engaged in the discernment of the truth (sensus fidelium), they also believe that Evangelicals have an inadequate appreciation of certain elements of truth that, from the earliest centuries, Christians have understood Christ to have intended for his Church; in particular, the Petrine and other apostolic ministries. While Evangelicals greatly respect the way in which the Catholic Church has defended many historic Christian teachings against relativizing and secularizing trends, and recognize the role of the present pontiff in that important task today, they believe that some aspects of Catholic doctrine are not biblically warranted, and they do not accept any claims of infallibility made for the magisterial teachings of popes or church councils.
With specific reference to the subject of the present statement, we are not agreed on the exercise of teaching authority in the life of Christ’s Church. To Evangelicals it appears that, in practice if not in theory, the Catholic understanding of Magisterium, including infallibility, results in the Roman Catholic Church standing in judgment over Scripture, instead of vice versa. Catholics, in turn, teach that the Magisterium exercised by the successors of the apostleswhich they believe is intended by Christ, is guided by the Holy Spirit, and is in clear continuity with the orthodox traditionenables the Church to explicate the truth of Holy Scripture obediently and accurately. We both recognize that judgments must be made in the life of Christ’s Church as to what is and what is not scriptural truth. We are not agreed on how such judgments are to be made, nor can either group accept all the decisions that have resulted from what they regard as a flawed way of deciding.
Among the Catholic teachings that Evangelicals believe are not biblically warranted are the eucharistic sacrifice and transubstantiation of the elements, the doctrine of purgatory, the immaculate conception and bodily assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the claimed authority of the Magisterium, including papal infallibility. Catholics, on the other hand, believe that Evangelicals are deficient in their understanding of, for instance, apostolically ordered ministry, the number and nature of the sacraments, the company and intercession of the saints, the Spirit-guided development of doctrine, and the continuing ministry of the Petrine office in the life of the Church. On these and other questions of great importance, we are not agreed. Nor do we agree on how we view our differences. Catholics view Evangelicalism as an ecclesially deficient community that needs to be strengthened by the full complement of gifts that they believe Christ intends for his Church. Evangelicals see Catholicism as centering upon an idea of the Church that clouds the New Testament gospel, and so needs to be brought into greater conformity with biblical teaching. The contrast here is far-reaching and goes deep.
At the same time, we recognize that, during the past five hundred years, the Holy Spirit, the Supreme Magisterium of God, has been faithfully at work among theologians and exegetes in both Catholic and Evangelical communities, bringing to light and enriching our understanding of important biblical truths in such matters as individual spiritual growth and development, the mission of Christ’s Church, Christian worldview thinking, and moral and social issues in today’s world. We praise God for His faithful work within each community as He has provided instruction and guidance in these and other important areas of Christian faith and life.
As Evangelicals and Catholics we are agreed on what we have said together in the statement “The Gift of Salvation” and on what we have been able to say together in the present statement on Scripture and tradition. The theological disagreements that still separate us are serious and require prayerful reflection and sustained mutual engagement. But in the face of a society marked by unbelieving ideologies and the culture of death, we deem it all the more important to affirm together those foundational truths of historic Christian orthodoxy that we do hold in common.
We are confident that the Lord is watching over His gospel and over those who have been called by the gospel, and we are sure that the forces of hell will not be able to thwart His divine purpose. By God’s grace, we will continue to pray for one another, to seek greater mutual understanding in continuing conversations, and, in accordance with our deeply held convictions, to work together to bring the love and light of Christ to all persons everywhere. We earnestly invoke the Holy Spirit’s continuing guidance in further establishing and making manifest our unity in the truth of Jesus Christ, so that the world may come to believe (John 17:21). In union with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we together pray, “Sanctify us in the truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:17).
Dr. Harold O. J. Brown
Reformed Theological Seminary
Mr. Charles Colson
Dr. Timothy George
Beeson Divinity School
Dr. Kent R. Hill
Eastern Nazarene College
Dr. Frank A. James
Reformed Theological Seminary
Dr. Cheryl Bridges Johns
Church of God School of Theology
Dr. T. M. Moore
Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church
Dr. Thomas Oden
Dr. James J. I. Packer
Regent College, British Columbia
Dr. Timothy R. Phillips
Wheaton Graduate School of Theology
Dr. John Woodbridge
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Dr. James J. Buckley
Loyola College of Maryland
Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.
Father Thomas Guarino
Seton Hall University
Father Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J.
Father Francis Martin
John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family
Father Richard John Neuhaus
Institute on Religion and Public Life
Father Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
Dr. Robert Louis Wilken
University of Virginia