Church and World

That Robert Benne wonders (“The Neo-Augustinian Temptation,” March) why Stanley Hauerwas and friends write so glowingly about “ecclesial realities” is likely due to Mr. Benne’s deficient grasp of ecclesiology, which he characterizes as “that formerly unexciting branch of systematic theology.” To speak glowingly about the Church apparently means for Mr. Benne to believe that the Church is composed of “shining knights in the Kingdom of God” rather than “bands of forgiven sinners.” Mr. Benne must have neglected his lessons in church history, as he seems unaware that the catholic tradition of ecclesiology, which is quite enthusiastic about ecclesial life, has always resisted the elitism prominent in schismatic renderings of the Church. Augustine’s writings against the Donatists and Pelagians helped to cement in the West a vision of the Church in which sinners in need of ongoing repair are welcomed, and the trajectories of Augustinian ecclesiology continue to challenge all forms of sectarianism . . . . As a Protestant who was eventually introduced to a more liturgical form of ecclesial life, I can inform Mr. Benne as to why some Christians are enthusiastic about ecclesiology. In both biblical and traditional catholic terms, the Church is the social matrix wherein redeemed sinners regularly encounter the riches of God’s unconditional love and are formed to share that love with their neighbors. The principal means of this encounter is the liturgy, in which the great events of salvation history are dramatized and celebrated. If we are to believe St. Paul, our continuing participation in this drama reinforces our communal identity as pilgrims en route to our true homeland, an identity difficult to maintain as life’s manifold pressures accumulate but necessary to nurture if we wish to bring every thought into captivity and obedience to Christ. An ecclesial life characterized by communal repentance and renewal may not excite the managers of mega-churches and their clients, or anyone else suspicious of traditional church trappings, but it is hardly the suffocating and stultifying experience Mr. Benne fears . . . . A genuine ecclesial life is in fact the sine qua non of the very thing Mr. Benne thinks missing from neo-Augustinian ecclesiology, the impulse to provide a comprehensive Christian witness to the world. As Robert Jenson has noted, if the Church is to be “relevant” in today’s world, it must not naively believe that the “real action” is in the world, while what happens “in church” is merely preparation for working in that world (a judgment implicit in Mr. Benne’s piece). Instead, for the Church to make a difference outside its own walls, it must continue to rehearse in its corporate life the promises made by the God who calls this Church into existence and sustains it by his Word and Spirit. Only a people humbled and empowered through participation in such an ecclesial life can witness in and struggle for the world.

Anthony DiStefano
Mesa, AZ

Beyond thanking him for the company in which he puts me, it is a little difficult to respond to Robert Benne, since he provides nothing that could be called an argument. Instead, after granting the force of much of what the rather diverse group he calls “Neo-Augustinians” has been saying, he goes on to suggest oh-so-condescendingly that we are really loopy sectarian romantics after all. He does so by setting forth a series of truisms as though they were counterpositions to Hays, Hütter, Milbank, Wright, Yeago, et al., though he has in fact done nothing to show that any of us disagree with any of them. For example: “If God is indeed the creator and sustainer of the larger world of economics, politics, and culture, then we as Christians are called to witness there.” So long as “creator and sustainer” does not (as I rather fear) exclude “judge” I would more or less agree, but the question is what constitutes competence to witness. My worry is that the ecclesial life of mainline churches lacks sufficient density to form us into competent witnesses; Professor Benne apparently thinks this a wild and irresponsible thought that respectable people will refuse to entertain. Or again: “And though we know that much of contemporary culture is debased, we also know that it is not beyond redemption.” None of the theologians to whom Mr. Benne refers has ever, to my knowledge, based any argument on a claim that contemporary culture is “beyond redemption”-whatever that means. The issue once again is formation and discernment. I believe that being drenched in the Psalms made Aquinas a better interpreter of Aristotle, and likewise that if mainline churches had their own vigorous scriptural and liturgical culture, our engagement with the culture around us would be more interesting and vital, not less. Mr. Benne goes on: “There is still much that is good-given and sustained by the Creator-in our common life outside the Church.” Indeed: and if our common life inside the Church helped us more to share the mind of Christ, we might be able to recognize that good when we saw it. So far as one can tell from so insubstantial a polemic, the problem seems to be that Prof. Benne assumes that spiritual discernment and moral judgment are basically easy . He apparently just knows what we are to do out there, what our witness in the world is supposed to be, what groups we should ally ourselves with; separating the good from the bad in contemporary culture is not a great puzzle to him. This is rooted in his assumption of the normativity and inevitability of the way things are: that either our lives or our churches might someday be quite different from what they are now, or that the mind and assumptions of nice middle-class Mainline Protestant People Like Us might not be an adequate Christian norm, seem to him dangerous and unhealthy thoughts. Meanwhile many of the most serious and thoughtful young adults in churches like mine and his are leaving for evangelicalism, for Rome, for Orthodoxy, where what Prof. Benne derides as romantic fantasy is available as concrete reality: neither communal perfection nor the end of strife but, yes, the incorporation of “full persons into a full ecclesial culture that can overcome the terrible fragmentation of modern life.” Many leave not because they want to renounce engagement with the world but because mainline churches give them no place to stand in their engagement. They leave because they are persuaded that there ought to be some profound wisdom in the gospel yet are given only platitudes. They leave because they suspect that all the self-righteous talk of engagement and witness is only fronting for a deep and torpid conformism that sees a “debased” culture as still “not all that bad.” (And once rooted in the “parallel ecclesial cultures” of whose inbred quietism Mr. Benne is so convinced, they go on to found, staff, and sustain the groups he points to as models for Christian engagement!) What is finally saddest about Mr. Benne’s piece is its resounding irrelevance. He seems to be fighting the emotional battles of thirty or forty years ago, struggling for freedom from a stifling pietism. The restoration of that pietism seems to be all he can imagine when anyone says “ecclesial culture,” though in fact it was stifling largely because it was built on the split between private religion and the public world that “Neo-Augustinians” have been criticizing. In the meantime, instead of dealing straightforwardly and concretely with what people are actually proposing and envisioning, Mr. Benne raises a cloud of rhetorical smoke about “suffocating and stultifying” ecclesial life, the only possible effect of which will be to hamper the concrete catechetical, liturgical, and disciplinary reforms that might yet open mainline churches to renewal and give them a future as communities of distinctive witness and life.

David S. Yeago
Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary
Columbia, SC

Robert Benne replies:

I find Anthony DiStefano’s eloquent description of ecclesial life very persuasive and have little to say in disagreement. My critical point was that such ecclesial life, no matter how rich, is not all we live in. To insist that it is seems “stultifying” to me. My point was that such ecclesial life cannot be the sole reality in which we live or out of which we attempt to renew society. As to David S. Yeago’s blustery response . . . I always thought it an axiom that the best conversations went on among friendly critics, but it seems that for Mr. Yeago a friendly critic is an oxymoron. Moreover, if the points of my little article are so “insubstantial” and “irrelevant,” then why all the unseemly rage? I thought I was being basically complimentary. But I did demur from what I thought is an unduly “church-centric” approach that does not care enough for the secular world as an arena of mission in our daily callings, and that seems too closed to the “world” as a source for building up a more wholesome common life. But Nobody Does Anything About It

Jonathan Carson’s “The Second Time as Farce: Galileo Redux” (March) shows how the spiritual hubris implicit in current secularist thinking about weather and climate is betrayed in the speech of political leaders on the subject. The matter has a deeply theological root, which Mr. Carson has exposed; he also rightly argues on scientific grounds that the weather, as a classic case of chaotic dynamic behavior, is hardly subject to systematic “background” control in the fashion tacitly presumed in much current talk about global warming and its possible prevention. Yet I think that in spite of the knowledge that Mr. Carson displays to illustrate his point, he has misled his readers in the long run by suggesting that there is a clear scientific basis for believing that we cannot affect climate . . . . Mr. Carson’s scientific statements about chaotic behavior deal mostly (and quite correctly) with the unpredictability and irregularity inherent in a particular chaotic trajectory. He has not really addressed the fact that the notion of climate , as distinct from the notion of weather , is not concerned with particular features of a single trajectory or history, but with the fact that there are some general features about certain kinds of time and system averages over many trajectories-and that these average features tend to show certain kinds of regularity or slow secular variation that are not apparent in a single trajectory (the term secular here has a technical meaning, not the common one of “not religious”). Whether or not Mr. Gore understands the difference between the notions of climate and weather, it is important that we not obscure it by too facile generalizations about chaotic and irregular behavior. Mr. Carson has suggested in his more discursive and less technical paragraphs that “variability” and “change” are so endemic to all such systems that the very notion of a “background” or secular change in such a system is inherently specious. This seems to me to be misleading and ultimately untrue in a practical sense. Mr. Carson is of course quite right in implying that if we ask whether even local or limited time averages in a system with chaotic trajectories are themselves completely ordered and regular, we find that they are not, and that over even greater times they, like individual trajectories themselves, are unpredictable; that is probably an essential aspect of chaotic behavior. Yet in practical terms such limited or local average behaviors do exhibit approximately regular and usefully predictable elements. The common distinction we make between the notions of climate and weather rests on that obvious truth in respect to the weather as a chaotic dynamic system. Mr. Carson points out that the term “chaos theory” is a misnomer because it is based on a mathematically demonstrable set of conclusions regarding certain kinds of determinate but complex physical systems. But the more important misnomer to which physicists commonly draw attention in the term is that the theory, as a theory with further useful conclusions, is not a theory about chaos but about the kinds of definite relations that can exist between forms of disorder and still higher forms of order. To draw the discursive conclusions Mr. Carson seems to leave us with is something akin to the way in which popular discussions of the theory of relativity used to suggest that it justified relativism in philosophical and moral thinking . . . . The fact is that most chaotic motion is not, on limited average, utterly unlike regular or nearly regular behavior, and while this qualitative judgment is very difficult if not impossible to make into mathematically rigorous conclusions, its practical value as a perception is an important starting point for constructive results in the theory. Hence also, while we scoff at the weatherman in detail, we do listen to him in general. It is also a fact that if one imposes a small perturbation of some kind in a chaotic dynamic system, its effects on the details of a particular trajectory will not be predictable; but its effects on the averaged behavior of both regular and chaotic trajectories will be more predictable, evident, and broadly understandable in terms of notions of stress and response. Given this simple fact, I cannot see how Mr. Carson can argue so categorically that we ought not think that (a) global warming is occurring, and (b) that if it is occurring our current behavior is not partly responsible for it. I am not prepared to attribute the excesses of “El Nino” this winter to “global warming” as some wild-eyed radicals do. I am not sure that the evidence for global warming is totally convincing or that its connection to our production of greenhouse gases, deforestation, or other forms of pollution of our world is firmly demonstrable. But it is suggestive enough to be sobering, and to make arguments that our actions do not affect, or cannot be shown to affect, the climate, seems rather irresponsible . . . .

Walter R. Thorson
Kootenia, ID

Jonathan Carson’s wide-ranging and pithy essay on Al Gore’s environmental looniness left me a bit confused about where Mr. Carson thinks the real problem lies. He describes two groups: the New Age types for whom Gore’s Earth in the Balance is tantamount to holy writ, and Christians for whom the Bible’s story of the Fall and Redemption is the ultimate explanation of the human condition. Although he refers in passing to scientific theories and results, he gives short shrift to those who, it seems to me, currently hold the winning hand in the environmental poker game we are playing with the world economy as chips. These are the scientists themselves, who have convinced nearly everyone in power that they can really tell what is going to happen to the globe’s climate. Few if any scientists believe in the childish vengeful-goddess myths that would blame the eruption of a Mount St. Helens on environmental depredation by multinational corporations. But many of them do believe that in burning fossil fuels, man is conducting a long-term experiment with the earth’s climate that really should not be tried. This tendency of thought was revealed vividly a couple of years ago when I attended a public lecture by an esteemed faculty member of my university’s Department of Geosciences. His topic was global warming, and he spent the better part of an hour describing the rich and varied record of climatic changes over thousands of years that are revealed by polar ice-core-sample research. After his talk he took questions, most of which bore on the technical aspects of his remarks. But when my turn came, I asked him, “If you became world energy czar tomorrow, what would your energy policy be?” This cool, objective, impartial scientist’s reply? “First, I’d fire the Pope!” In other words, the best solution to the problem of global warming was not wise use of available energy, or the development of alternatives, but a reduction in the number of people, since it was those pesky humans who were lousing up the environment in the first place, and anyone who recommended policies to increase the multiplication of such an undesirable species was obviously off his nut . . . . As much recent work in the sociology of science has shown, scientists are not always the calmly objective followers of truth wherever it may lead, an image they carefully cultivate in public forums. They are as swayed by political winds and funding shifts as members of any other profession. We can hope and pray that the current trendy environmentalism will yield in the future to something more reasonable in the Aristotelian sense of “reason,” which includes wisdom and common sense as well as what passes for modern science.

Karl D. Stephan
Amherst, MA

Jonathan Carson replies:

Walter R. Thorson says that I have “misled” readers “by suggesting that there is a clear scientific basis for believing that we cannot affect climate.” I am “rather irresponsible” for making “arguments that our actions do not affect, or cannot be shown to affect, the climate.” In fact, I was careful not to say that we have no effect on weather and climate. I even stated explicitly that we “do affect the weather.” My complaint is with those who say that they know the nature and magnitude of the myriad of effects we have on the weather. I worried, for instance, about voters who “believe that the weather depends in some large and predictable way upon how they vote,” not about voters who think that their votes have some effect on the weather. Mr. Thorson makes the serious charge that I draw my conclusions in “something akin to the way in which popular discussions of the theory of relativity used to suggest that it justified relativism in philosophical and moral thinking.” But that mistake consisted of taking a conclusion from one realm (science) and applying it uncritically to another (philosophy), while my use of chaos theory is confined to the scientific realm for which it was designed. Karl D. Stephan has accurately described scientists who promote global warming hysteria. The problem is that a secular society does not meet the demands of our fallen human nature. Man is a religious animal. Religion means sacrifice. So secular society is driven by transmuted religious impulses, transmuted sacrificial behaviors, one of which is fear of global warming. Scientists are no more immune from this imperative than anyone else. They zealously guard science against Christianity and are taken unawares by the New Age. The Irony of Realism

Andrew J. Bacevich’s “The Irony of American Power” (March) is very instructive about the United States’ foreign policy both past and present. The critique of neoliberals and neoconservatives helps put today’s foreign policy debates in a framework that provides useful insight. However, I hope his preferred alternative does “not exhaust the range of possibilities available to the United States.” Realism seems to substitute “no vision” for “flawed vision.” As Mr. Bacevich aptly points out, realism “does not provide a formula for policy prescription.” . . . Realism may prove useful to insure that U.S. commitments do not exceed its finite power, but I fail to ascertain from Mr. Bacevich’s description how it provides any clue as to what the goal of U.S. policy should be. An “approximate peace” is the closest description of any vision that Mr. Bacevich provides. How does the application of realism move us in that direction? Neoliberalism envisions a path through “continuous economic growth,” while the neoconservative’s path marker is “ideological expansion.” . . . “Sound policy” is a meaningless term until attached to a goal. Mr. Bacevich would have supplied a more useful conclusion if he had recommended an alternative that included a discernible vision.

Bruce Klimak Ogden
Dunes, IN

Necessary Neutrality

Richard John Neuhaus disparages Douglas Laycock’s view that government should be religiously neutral (While We’re At It, March). But if government is not neutral, then it favors one or some religions or religious positions over others. Thus, if a government may deny women the right to end problem pregnancies, it may as easily deny women the right to continue pregnancies the government may not approve of; or the government that provides tax aid to Catholic private schools could hardly refuse to provide similar aid to fundamentalist schools that derogate Catholicism and Episcopalianism (as Albert Menendez documented in his 1993 book Visions of Reality: What Fundamentalist Schools Teach ). Democratic principle, religious pluralism, and fairness demand government neutrality toward religion. Luckily, our Constitution requires it.

Edd Doerr
Executive Director Americans for Religious Liberty
Kansas City, MO

In Defense of Lutheran Ecumenism

Some things were obscured by Richard John Neuhaus’ critique (“Here I Stand. And Here, and Here: The ELCA in Assembly,” Public Square, December 1997) of the 1997 ecumenical decisions by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Or so it seems to this evangelical catholic participant in one of the dialogues that produced the ecumenical proposals. 1. Church doctrine is defined by corporate texts and traditions, not by anecdotes. Father Neuhaus reminded us of this (at a 1995 St. Olaf conference) when protesting a newspaper survey that showed many Roman Catholic parishioners to be closet Zwinglians-seeing the Eucharist as “memorial” rather than Real Presence. He forgot this good point about the locus of church identity in his judgment of the Episcopal Church and United Church of Christ by the theological vacuity of some of their clergy rather than by their historic texts and traditions. On current doctrinal emptiness in our churches, we are all in the same boat, Fr. Neuhaus included, and there is no safe ecclesiastical harbor. Among the important counter trends to ideological fancies is the return to doctrinal First Things in all of the ecumenical proposals the ELCA considered. In fact, at key points their stated premises are not unlike the affirmations of the recent “Gift of Salvation” statement of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” that Fr. Neuhaus helped to fashion . . . . 2. All three proposals work with a common presupposition, identified in the Lutheran-Reformed document as “mutual affirmation and mutual admonition.” Harding Myer, a leading Lutheran ecumenist, calls this an ecumenical breakthrough. Far from the theological indifferentism Fr. Neuhaus finds as explanation for the approval or near-approval of all three proposals, this kind of ecumenical negotiation requires each church not only to discern the convergences noted above, but also to honor the divergences: to admonish the other about the validity of its own “accent” or “emphasis,” and to open its own ears to the same kind of admonition. This tough-mindedness about historical differences acknowledges the need of each church body for a “corrective” to its reductionist temptations. Paul’s word to a fragmented Corinthian congregation (1 Corinthians 12) is just this kind of counsel. And what tradition in the present broken state of the Body of Christ does not need to be so admonished? 3. The appreciative citation of Mercersburg theology is welcome. John Nevin and Philip Schaff were the first to give currency in North America to “evangelical Catholicism,” and are influential ancestors of my own “insouciant” United Church of Christ. But contrary to Fr. Neuhaus’ dismissal of Reformed eucharistic theology, their careful research demonstrated its commitment to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Of course, there is a long-time Lutheran-Reformed debate on the mode of that Presence: the Lutheran concept of “ubiquity” vs. the Reformed view of the work of the Holy Spirit making present the glorified humanity of Christ. As noted by Robert Jenson, the international Reformed-Roman Catholic Dialogue, on just this point, “achieved an extensive common doctrine of Christ’s presence,” albeit, interestingly, with a “polite shared opposition to Lutheran innovations.” Mutual admonition and the quest for complementarity are a better way than either “polite . . . opposition” or church-dividing declamations based on careless theological judgments. We are all in debt to the ELCA for its theological seriousness in showing us this better way toward St. Paul’s catholic vision.

Gabriel Fackre Andover
Newton Theological School
Newton Centre, MA

Living in the Last Days

Thank you for Avery Dulles’ illuminating article on tradition and liturgy (“The Ways We Worship,” March). He said, however, that tradition “points forward to the Eschaton.” One wishes he had used “the Eschaton” (the last age) in its fuller biblical meaning instead of the restricted meaning of the Second Coming and its aftermath. St. Paul and other New Testament authors have this final age already beginning at Christ’s death and resurrection and continuing on to its perfection at his Second Coming. The early Christians are said to be living “at the ends of the ages” (1 Corinthians 10:11), the end of the age of the Mosaic Law and the beginning of the new Christian eschatological age, the Eschaton. Christ came the first time “at the end of the ages” (Hebrews 9:26) or “at the end of the times” (1 Peter 1:20). But the new last age has already begun (Romans 3:21), called the “later times” (1 Timothy 4:1) or “the last hour” (1 John 2:18). “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Among the many manifestations of this new age, this as yet imperfectly present Eschaton, is the church’s liturgy, aptly characterized by the Second Vatican Council as offering a foretaste of the liturgy of heaven.

(The Rev.) Jerome F. Treacy, S.J.
Clarkston, MI

Avery Dulles replies:

I see no real difference between my position and that of Father Treacy. That the Eschaton is not a merely future reality should be clear from my statement that “tradition communicates the Holy Spirit, who is the eschatological gift.” While acknowledging that the Eschaton is “imperfectly present” here and now, Fr. Treacy and I both wish to keep the tension toward the as-yet-unrealized future. As the Church sings in its antiphon for Vespers at the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Eucharist is “a pledge of future glory.” The promised fullness is a key element in Christian eschatology. Correcting the Record

It is unfortunate that George Hunston Williams’ superb book, The Mind of John Paul II , receives mention in the pages of First Things only, it seems, to be the victim of a misattribution (“Absolutely Free,” Public Square, March). Richard John Neuhaus reports that, according to the translators of a new book by Rocco Buttiglione, Williams’ book contains the suggestion that “because Wojtyla was a Pole writing under a totalitarian regime, he did not understand the American mind and the principles of the free society.” That remark would unfairly group Williams’ excellent and reliable book with a large number of bad books on the Pope. In fact, Williams asserts the opposite. An eminent historian of Slavic Christianity, Williams correctly notes that Wojtyla’s Polish inheritance gave him an appreciation of civil liberties, e.g., “Our second emerging motif is the long tradition of civil liberty in Poland and the indisposition on the part of Poles to use coercion in the realm of conscience.” And he regards Wojtyla’s long experience with totalitarianism as a training ground in the appreciation of republicanism, observing in this regard that “no Pontiff in modern times has ever come to the See of Peter with greater personal devotion to the principles of civil liberties as the natural and revealed rights of man than has John Paul II.” The translators of Buttiglione, it seems, are sloppy in their philosophizing as well as in their scholarship. They claim, quite incredibly, that Wojtyla “values freedom more than truth, and is ready to subordinate the rights of truth to freedom”; but this is not relativism, which is “the dismissal of truth.” But if Wojtyla had held that view-and I am not acquainted with any evidence or sound arguments that he did-he would then be at odds, not only with the entire Catholic philosophical tradition, but also with his own Veritatis Splendor , which quite explicitly states that freedom should be subordinated to truth and that the contrary view amounts to relativism. Williams’ book on the thought of John Paul II, published in 1981, has proved astonishingly prescient in its predictions of what a Wojtyla pontificate would be like . . . . Perhaps Buttiglione’s book will surpass it, but I suspect that this would be in spite of, not by the help of, the efforts of his English translators.

Michael Pakaluk
Department of Philosophy Clark University
Worcester, MA

A Different Gospel?

In “Ungenuine and Gratuitous” (Public Square, March), Richard John Neuhaus takes “some Baptists” to task for their criticism of the Evangelical-Catholic “Gift of Salvation” statement, which seeks to articulate a doctrine of justification by faith that is acceptable to both parties. Father Neuhaus charges that “these critics [assume] that baptismal regeneration is incompatible with justification by faith . . . . [They are] prejudging the question before engaging it.” According to Fr. Neuhaus, “Some Baptist opponents of ‘The Gift of Salvation’ would seem to be elevating baptismal regeneration to the status of the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, in which case one might suggest that Baptists are decidedly outside the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy . . . [and] such an elevation would quite thoroughly shatter the community that is today called evangelical Protestantism.” . . . I cannot presume to speak for the Baptist critics (indeed, I am not a Baptist myself), but I suspect my objections to “The Gift of Salvation” are similar to theirs (which, if Fr. Neuhaus’ presentation of them is fair, may have been clumsily expressed), so I shall endeavor to clarify why it is that we do not accept this statement. Evangelicals believe that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. This means that the requirement for salvation is belief plus nothing else. There are too many statements in the Bible affirming that those who believe are saved (including, of course, John 3:16, which is cited as the preface to “The Gift of Salvation”) for us to say that something other than belief is necessary for salvation. Furthermore, we believe that adding any other requirement for salvation is to depart from the Gospel . . . . What does the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) say about the requirements for salvation? CCC 1129 says, “The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation “ (emphasis in original). CCC 1257 says, “Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament.” These are only two of many examples, but they are more than enough to show that the Roman Catholic Church does indeed add requirements, beyond simple faith, for salvation. Thus, by the Protestant understanding, Rome preaches a different gospel, which is no gospel at all . . . . There is one point about which Fr. Neuhaus is correct. He writes, “If believable affirmation of the heart of the Gospel requires the Catholic repudiation of doctrines that Baptists think incompatible with the heart of the Gospel, there is obviously no point to further theological conversation.” We do believe that affirmation of the heart of the Gospel does require the Catholic repudiation of doctrines that are incompatible with the heart of the Gospel. Until and unless that happens, the Protestant Gospel and the Catholic gospel remain quintessentially different and irreconcilable, and conversation for the purpose of reconciling them is indeed pointless. Finally, we do not maintain that the Catholic signatories “are not genuine Catholics, are dishonest, or are just plain dumb.” Rather, it is the Evangelical signatories (presumably in their haste to make common cause with the Catholic Church in the “culture wars”) who have been theologically careless and remiss. Very remiss, indeed.

John Tors
Toronto, Ontario

The Biblical Gospel

Since its publication, “The Gift of Salvation” ( First Things , January), of which we along with other Evangelical and Roman Catholic theologians were signatories, has garnered much attention on both sides of this historic confessional divide. We are eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace lest the Body of Christ be further fractured through careless conduct or willful disregard on our part. We are thus pleased to respond to various comments and questions concerning the purpose and intended meaning of “The Gift of Salvation.” “The Gift of Salvation” is not an official accord between the Roman Catholic Church and any evangelical church or denomination. It is a good-faith effort on the part of some Roman Catholics and some Evangelicals to say, with as much clarity as possible, how they understand God’s gracious gift of salvation on the basis of the Word of God. We Evangelicals who signed “The Gift of Salvation” do not claim a unity of faith with the Church of Rome. What we do acknowledge is a unity in Christ with Roman Catholic believers who, no less than we ourselves, have been saved by God’s grace and justified by faith alone. Despite our doctrinal differences, we who by faith know, love, trust, and hope in Christ the Mediator are brothers and sisters in the Lord. We believe that “The Gift of Salvation” is a significant first step in the right direction, but we do not claim that we have reached a complete common agreement on the doctrine of salvation as expressed in the official teachings of our respective communities. As Timothy George wrote in his introduction to “The Gift of Salvation” in the December 1997 issue of Christianity Today : “We rejoice that our Roman Catholic interlocutors have been able to agree with us that the doctrine of justification set forth in this document agrees with what the Reformers meant by justification by faith alone ( sola fide ) . . . . [But] this still does not resolve all the differences between our two traditions on this crucial matter.” Likewise Cardinal Edward Cassidy declared: “This does not mean that Evangelicals and Catholics have overcome all their doctrinal differences or that their understanding of the Gospel and of the Christian message has suddenly become identical. We will surely continue to evangelize according to our beliefs.” Yet what we have affirmed together in this document, we believe, is of fundamental importance. When “The Gift of Salvation” speaks of “needlessly divisive disputes” between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals, it does not refer to the many weighty theological matters on which we still conscientiously disagree, such as sacramental theology, Marian devotion, purgatory, etc. “The Gift of Salvation” takes note of these matters, referring to them as “serious and persistent differences” which are “necessarily interrelated” with the affirmations we have made in common, and are thus future agenda items for us. The fact that these issues are “on the table” does not mean that they are “up for grabs,” but rather that they must be pursued with rigor and honesty in our continuing dialogue. By “needlessly divisive disputes” we mean the kind of mutual recrimination and uncharitable taunting which has resulted in Protestant-bashing and Catholic-baiting in the past and which still persists today. Our methodology in crafting “The Gift of Salvation” was to study the Bible together and to formulate a statement on salvation derived from and based upon the evidence of Holy Scripture alone. In doing so we were in line with the historic Evangelical insistence on the sufficiency of Scripture and the recent Roman Catholic renaissance in biblical studies. Based on our common study of the Bible, we were able to agree that the work of redemption has been accomplished (a word which means done, completed) by Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. “The Gift of Salvation” affirms a declaratory, forensic justification on the sole ground of the righteousness of Christ alone, a standing before God not earned by any good works or merits of our own. It states that in justification, here and now, God graciously constitutes us his forgiven friends and that is how henceforth we stand in relation to him. In these terms, we intended to affirm nothing less than “justification by grace alone because of Christ alone through faith alone,” which is the biblical Gospel. The word imputation (not used in the body of the document) refers to God’s crediting of righteousness to us because of what Christ has done for us: which means, God’s accounting of Christ’s righteousness to all those who are united with him through faith. As Evangelicals, we saw this teaching as implicit in the doctrine of justification by faith alone and tried to express it in biblical terms. Our discussion was also informed by the superb biblical scholarship of Father Joseph Fitzmyer, whose recent Commentary on Romans illuminates the Pauline meaning of justification:

When, then, Paul in Romans says that Christ Jesus “justified” human beings “by his blood” (3:25; cf. 5:9), he means that by what Christ suffered in his passion and death he has brought it about that sinful human beings can stand before God’s tribunal acquitted or innocent, with the judgment not based on observance of the Mosaic Law . . . . Paul insists on the utter gratuity of this justification because “all alike have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). Consequently, this uprightness does not belong to human beings (10:3), and it is not something that they have produced or merited; it is an alien uprightness, one belonging rightly to another (to Christ) and attributed to them because of what that other has done for them. So Paul understands God “justifying the godless” (4:5) or “crediting uprightness” to human beings quite “apart from deeds.”
As we have said before, we do not seek Christian unity at the expense of Christian truth. We are engaged in an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation. That commitment to unity in truth alone is held with equal firmness by both the Evangelical and Roman Catholic theologians in this ongoing process. We see our statement as expressing, not indeed unity in every aspect of the Gospel but unity in its basic dimension, with hope of that unity being extended through further discussion. In the sixteenth century, Calvin, Bucer, and Melanchthon, among others, met with Roman Catholic theologians to discuss the central doctrines of the Reformation. We, with them, stand in that same tradition, committed to the principle of ecclesia semper reformanda (the church always reforming). We believe that both doctrinal reformation and Christian unity flow from the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. For this we pray and beg the prayers of all God’s people.

Timothy George
Thomas C. Oden
J. I. Packer

A Tale of Two Cities

It might be best for Richard John Neuhaus to spend some time in New Orleans before decrying its “suicide” (While We’re At It, March). And I don’t mean on a whirlwind tour of a talk here and a talk there and then a flight out of town as his type has been known to do. I’m talking a leisurely week or so in the Crescent city to pray with its people, speak its language, walk its streets, eat its food. He might find it a bit safer than the rumors he’s heard may have it. You see, we’ve borrowed some good ideas and some bad ones from the Big Apple-law enforcement tactics is one of the good ones. Another would be refusing to accept silly observations: how many black children does Father Neuhaus think are numb enough not to care about studying in a school named after the Confederacy’s sole president (or some of its generals)? I wouldn’t call this “ideological rectification of history.” I’d call it overcoming the ramifications of sin through the grace of God in our hearts . . . . Hasn’t the Big Apple gone through some of its own name changes in its history? If we always refused change simply for its own sake, your magazine would be issued from New Amsterdam. Sometimes changes come about as a result of opened eyes . . . . Can you walk down Elysian Fields in your city? Can you take a shaded stroll down St. Charles Avenue? Eat at Galatiore’s or Antoine’s on Bourbon Street? Do you have a Pirates’ Alley? In your street address I see only the sterile “156 Fifth Avenue.” And please, let’s remember that Walker Percy’s setting for Love in the Ruins was not New Orleans. It was decaying suburbia where, as Percy says, a malaise had taken over-the inspiration of this setting being not far from where we live and Walker Percy is buried. (We monks struggle more against numb Catholics here than we care to.) I would not say that our nearby city’s inhabitants, the majority of them black, have fallen into a malaise. They care about the names of the schools that their children attend. Is this wrong?

(The Rev.) Albert Terrillion, O.S.B.
Saint Joseph Abbey
Saint Benedict, LA

RJN replies:

I could suggest that naming a school after Thurgood Marshall should not be confused with “overcoming the ramifications of sin,” or that New Yorkers feel no need to change the name given the city by the conquering Brits, but I will limit myself to protesting that just because 156 Fifth Avenue was once the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church and of the National Council of Churches does not mean that it is “sterile.” Notorious, maybe.

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