The year 2014 marked the twentieth anniversary of the first publication of the ongoing project Evangelicals and Catholics Together. From the beginning, ECT was more than an alliance of convenience. It was a theological movement grounded in the Holy Scriptures and the deepest impulses of the historic Christian faith. In this work we were guided by two senior theologians, Dr. J. I. Packer, an irenic champion of unitive evangelicalism, and Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., the first U.S.-born theologian to be made a Catholic cardinal without having served as a bishop.
The wisdom, wit, and unfaltering Christian commitment of these two giants of the faith guided the ECT project through some deep waters and dangerous shoals. Jim Packer continues to bless the church through his writings and ministry from his base at Regent College in Vancouver. Avery Dulles departed this world for a better place several years ago, but his work as one of our leading ecumenical theologians continues to bear good fruit.
The word and in Evangelicals and Catholics Together indicates both connection and disjunction. The need of Christian unity stems from the fact that followers of Jesus bear a divided witness before a watching world. We recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, but we are not yet together at the family meal. Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, once lamented this fact. He declared that “we know neither the day nor hour, nor are we able to determine, when and how unity will come into existence. For that what applies, really and in its full rigor is Melanchthon’s ubi et quando visum est Deo [“where and when it pleases God”]. In any case it should be clear that we do not create unity, no more than we bring about righteousness by means of our works, but that on the other hand we should not sit around twiddling our thumbs. Here therefore, it would be a question of continually learning afresh from the other as other while respecting his or her otherness. As people who are divided, we can also be one.”
In response to this situation, Avery Dulles developed what he called an “interim strategy” for Catholics and Evangelicals to work together in the cause of Christ despite—and in the midst of—persistent and important differences. In an essay titled, “The Unity For Which We Hope,” Avery Dulles set forth a ten-point program of intermediate goals and strategies.
- Correct misleading stereotypes. For all our progress toward greater mutual understanding, stereotypes still persist. Often we hear “Catholics worship Mary” or “Evangelicals put private experience above the revelation of God in Scripture.” Such statements may well be true of some Catholics and certain evangelicals, but they represent a departure from, not an authentic development of, the church’s faith.
- Openness to surprise. Part of breaking through stereotypes is coming to recognize how devotion to Christ, the Scriptures, and the Gospel are manifest in surprising ways across confessional lines.
- Holy rivalry. By this phrase Dulles meant that Evangelicals and Catholics “should strive to excel each other not in wealth, power, and prestige but in virtues such as honesty, self-sacrifice, care for the poor, faith in God’s Word, and hope of eternal life.” This rule resonates with the counsel of the Apostle Paul: “Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other” (Rom. 12:10, NLT).
- Overcome mutual suspicion. Several centuries of mutual antagonism, recrimination, and indeed violence against one another have left deep scars in both communities. We must study the past before we can forgive it. In this way, memories can be healed and friendships restored, not only for individuals but also among entire communities of faith.
- Respect each other’s freedom and integrity. This rule speaks to the important distinction between evangelism and proselytism. An early ECT statement called for Evangelicals and Catholics to practice evangelism both within and across their distinctive communities. But this must always be done in the spirit of Christ—without forceful pressure or tactics that demean and disrespect.
- Ecumenism of mutual enrichment. Shunning any premature surrender of their unique characteristics and heritage for the sake of easy unity, Dulles called on Catholics and Evangelicals alike to affirm what “in faith may be seen as held in trust by them for the whole oikoumene.”
- Bonds of faith. Even in our present state of ecclesial dividedness, there are many ways Catholics and Evangelicals can express together the common faith of the church. “It is no small thing that we can jointly read the same Scriptures as God’s inspired Word, that we can share in the confession of the triune God and of Jesus Christ as true God and true man. It is a blessing to be bound together by the same essential forms of Christian prayer, based on Holy Scripture, and by common commitment to the way of life held forth in the Ten Commandments as interpreted in the light of the New Testament. We are privileged to share in the same hope of eternal life in the Kingdom of God.”
- Joint witness and social action. Inspired by our founders Chuck Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, ECT has always pursued a dual strategy. We explore the spiritual and theological basis of our common bond in Christ, and we speak clearly to pressing moral and social issues of our time. For example, the most recent ECT statements have focused on the sacredness of human life and religious freedom. Our current project deals with marriage and its importance for the rising generation and our common life together.
- Peace and patience. The quest for Christian unity cannot be measured in terms of immediate success or visible results. The fact that an “interim strategy” is called for indicates that a quick solution is not in sight. We are reformers of the long haul and in the long view. On one occasion Father Neuhaus said to me, “Remember, Timothy, we may well be living in the first days of the early church!”
- Pray together. Cardinal Dulles encouraged us to pray, separately and together, “for full realization of Christ’s petition that we may all be one in a manifest way that induces the world to believe.” Thus we join our prayer with that of Christ himself who asked for his disciples to be one as he and the heavenly Father are one (John 17:21).
Though first presented some twenty years ago, Avery’s ten rules remain relevant and urgent today. Perhaps, when taken together, they sound unduly modest to some, small steps toward a distant goal, but they are steps that move in the right direction.
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is email@example.com.
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