Over the coming days, First Things will present a set of reflections on Evangelicals and Catholics Together originally commissioned for publication on Reformation21. We begin with the below introduction from Reformation21 editor Mark McDowell.
Read Timothy George's first installment of this series here. –Ed.
Twenty-one years ago to the month, a group of ecumenically-minded Evangelicals and Roman Catholics, led by Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson, gathered together and issued the statement: “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium (ECT).” It first appeared in New York on Tuesday, March 29th, 1994 and a few months later was published in First Things. While many applauded and welcomed the document at its launch, it was also met with intense controversy and a great deal of suspicion. To this day some would argue that not much has changed.
ECT was crafted with the purpose of finding some agreement on the core tenets of Christian teaching. From this standpoint, it urges Evangelicals and Protestants to act together, as far as “divergent convictions allow” (JI Packer), on matters of cultural and moral concern. “Co-belligerence” at the grassroots level is at the heart of ECT's mission, prodding both communities to collaborate together against the corrosive effects of Western secularism. One of the recent products of its labours is the statement on marriage found in the recent edition of First Things.
This week we take the opportunity to reflect on the unofficial and ad hoc initiative of ECT. I've asked our writers—Timothy George, Thomas Guarino, and Carl Trueman—to offer a fresh retrospect over the intervening years, to take stock of the ecumenical situation as it involves both Evangelical and Catholic communities, and to reflect on its development up to the present day. Each will examine the beginnings, aims and accomplishments of this informal ecumenical endeavor as well as revisit ECT's central focus in light of more deeply entrenched and aggressive cultural challenges to Christianity.
As our authors show, disagreements remain and likely will continue to remain—both parties take their theological positions seriously—but the aim here is to enter into a true dialogue as well as to highlight where the conversation stands today. In this way, then, the discussion proceeds along a descriptive line instead of suggesting a prescriptive ordering.
Part of the mission of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, which Reformation 21 serves and is a part of, is to represent and foster principled engagement from a distinctively confessional perspective. Because of a secure sense of doctrinal clarity and a firm set of theological sensibilities that are rooted in and informed by the Reformed tradition, we are confident enough to enter into dialogues that run the gamut of thought and range across a spectrum of opinion. We do so without fear of succumbing to the temptation of compromising biblical essentials or glossing over existing differences. Such freedom ought to release us from treating this topic in an echo chamber, wherein our own message can end up ringing back in our ears in rather stale and lifeless tones.
When theology is insulated from broader conversations, it can lead to a culture of complacency wherein adherents can slavishly regurgitate doctrinal ‘facts' with gusto (but without reflection), yet at the same time experience a theological and spiritual impoverishment. The danger any theology faces when it retreats to a theological enclave is to repeat and reinforce its own mantra.
When theology is done well, it specifies its own theological distinctiveness with vigor, charity, and humility. It enters into dialogue—and instead of ignoring key differences, it restates them so that a new generation can come to see for themselves the true points of concern in light of the biblical and theological depth of their own tradition. This provides an enlarged knowledge of their own affirmations and encourages more joy and confidence, while also providing a fuller understanding and critical appreciation of the other's tradition.
I'm delighted that all three writers for this series have accepted the invitation to speak on this topic. To have a Baptist (George), a Presbyterian (Trueman) and a Roman Catholic (Guarino) contribute to this symposium offers the possibility for a genuine cross-bench interaction—and for that, and to each of the contributors, I'm incredibly grateful. We'll begin first with Timothy George, then tomorrow we'll hear from Thomas Guarino and, finally, Carl Trueman on Monday.
Mark McDowell is the General Editor and Reviews Editor for Reformation 21.