First Things is presenting a set of reflections on Evangelicals and Catholics Together, originally commissioned for publication on Reformation21. Read an introduction from Reformation21 editor Mark McDowell here, and find the first installments here and here. –Ed.
Over twenty years on, the practical impact of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together is not hard to discern. Positively, it was part of a larger collaboration that gave us the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and other related volumes. It also helped to foster the culture which surrounds First Things, perhaps the most articulate organ for the expression of conservative religious voices in the current cultural climate. Negatively, it shattered friendships and bred suspicion. Most notably, it served to rupture the relationship between J. I. Packer and leading Calvinistic evangelicals such as John MacArthur and R. C. Sproul.
In reflecting on ECT, I do not wish to rehash old conflicts. Rather, I want to draw attention to the fact that ecumenism can take a number of forms, and that this might well shape how we think about ECT on its twentieth anniversary.
First, a little scholarly background. Research in my own field of sixteenth and seventeenth century Protestantism over the last thirty years has shown that Protestantism represented only a partial break with medieval Catholicism. Put simply, the doctrine of God is something Protestantism assumed from medieval Catholicism; the notions of authority and ecclesiology were fundamentally transformed; and soteriology exhibited both continuities (e.g., anti-Pelagian understandings of predestination) and discontinuities (e.g., faith as the instrument of justification in which Christ’s righteousness was imputed, not imparted).
When we take this into account for ecumenism, we can see that ecumenical dialogue in the present therefore faces an interesting dilemma which has, as far as I can tell, been little noted: How do we establish the relative priorities of, say, the doctrine of God and the doctrine of salvation?
The question becomes more pressing when we note that much of the best work on classical theism and Trinitarianism of the last thirty years has been done by Roman Catholic theologians. One thinks, for example, of the work of Brian Davies, Khaled Anatolios, Lewis Ayres, Gilles Emery, Thomas Weinandy and Matthew Levering. Evangelical work in the same field has tended to be less rigorous or, worse still, to deviate from classical orthodox notions of God and Trinity. Immutability, impassibility, and doctrines such as the eternal generation of the Son have been abandoned or reduced in importance by large sections of the evangelical world.
By way of contrast, much of the best work on soteriology—biblical and systematic—has remained within the bounds set by Reformation Protestantism. One thinks of the commentaries by men such as Douglas Moo, Thomas Schreiner, and Greg Beale. Justification by grace through faith, consisting of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, remains basic to many Protestants’ understanding of the Gospel, including my own confessional Presbyterian tradition.
There are thus two questions which we can raise here, one systematic and theological, the other ecumenical and practical. The systematic question is this: Can one sustain orthodox Protestant soteriology in the long term if one abandons the classical theism and Trinitarianism which underpinned it? To put this another way: Can evangelicals consistently maintain their understanding of the Reformation gospel, given their frequent indifference to the catholic (and thus Reformation) doctrine of God?
That question is crucial. The evangelical imagination is very much in thrall to the idea that tinkering with the doctrine of scripture is lethal in the long run for orthodoxy, but history indicates that tinkering with the doctrine of God is just as devastating. New England Puritanism did not degenerate into moralistic Unitarianism because of the impact of Higher Criticism.
This then raises the ecumenical practical question: Why do evangelicals see agreement on soteriology, and not on the doctrine of God, as the necessary precondition for ecumenism? Many evangelicals reject dialogue with Roman Catholics because of the issues of authority and soteriology. Yet we should remember that the foundational doctrine of God may be shared between some confessional Protestant evangelicals and traditional Roman Catholics while being a point of clear disagreement between evangelicals who seem to have no difficulty working together.
We can illustrate this problem by reflecting on the recent alternative ecumenism offered by leading evangelicals. It may not officially carry the label, but ecumenism by stadium platform and celebrity speaker line-up is ecumenism nonetheless. This is the kind of influential ecumenical evangelicalism forged by the Young, Restless, and Reformed which profoundly shaped the conservative evangelical world from circa 2005 until it fell apart in 2012 and which still lives on today in a more fractured form at the various big evangelical conferences.
This stadium platform ecumenism is personality heavy and doctrine light. It has placed some very theologically inept people in positions of significant public influence based solely on their ability to pull a crowd. Not all of its senior leaders ultimately seemed particularly clear even on the nature and importance of the doctrine of the Trinity. It has offered incoherent and even contradictory messages on sanctification. It has created a whole slew of doctrines upon which we apparently must agree to differ and thus consider practically indifferent: supernatural gifts, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, polity. And by putting swagger on stage, it has promoted very problematic models of leadership. In such a context, evangelical anger over ECT might appear to be rather selective in its outrage, given what some of its outspoken critics are prepared to tolerate or ignore elsewhere. After all, can one really claim to agree on the Gospel of God without first agreeing on the God of the Gospel?
When we reflect on ECT in light of this alternative, one might make the case that this new evangelical ecumenism is far more confused and potentially confusing to the Church. Conservative evangelicalism is often driven by big money and by vested interests. Its choice of headline acts makes it doctrinally idiosyncratic and sometimes downright mediocre. But, most important of all, its whole culture—its use of evangelical celebrities and its media savvy—has made it that much more influential at congregational level even as it is accountable to no-one but a self-selected few.
Even as a critic of ECT, I very much appreciate that it was open about its purpose as ecumenical. By contrast, conservative American evangelicalism seems to have replaced it with ecumenism by stealth or default—fronted by celebrities, driven by branding, and governed not by honest and open theological discussion but by back-room deals and the needs of maintaining market share. It may not call itself ecumenism but that is most assuredly what it is. And there is little doubt that it is this last form of ecumenism which has the farthest reach and the most impact at congregational level.
Having said this, perhaps the biggest disappointment about ECT is the fact that, like stadium evangelicalism, it disconnects matters which should be connected. If ecumenical dialogue is to take place and to mean anything, it cannot operate simply at the level of a quest to find common language and a few shared but isolated concepts. Thoughtful Roman Catholics and Protestants have never denied such commonalities.
But such by themselves are not enough. True agreement comes, for example, not only when we state that we agree on the gift of salvation but when we then work out in concrete terms the profound implications of that for the way we think and live as churches and as individual Christians. Either purgatory has to go from Roman Catholicism or must be adopted by Protestants, sacraments need to be central or subordinated to the word preached, and the papacy is either vital or unnecessary. In each case, actions, not simply signatures, are required.
In closing I would offer two observations. First, reflections on ECT should be first and foremost an opportunity for soul-searching by those of us who are not part of the process. Before we start thanking the Lord that we are not like other men, we should ask ourselves whether our own alternative ecumenism, so often controlled by a few unaccountable powerbrokers and by big money, really possesses more integrity.
Second, evangelical Protestants will benefit immensely from listening to Roman Catholic thinkers engaging with the pressing public square issues of abortion, sexuality, and religious freedom. On the doctrine of God, the best writers are also Roman Catholics. But on the critical Reformation issues of authority and justification I still do not see any advance beyond the sixteenth century.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His previous posts can be found here.