Are We Together?:
A Roman Catholic Analyzes Evangelical Protestants
by eduardo j. echeverria
lectio publishing, 206 pages, $21.75
Despite the reforms initiated by Vatican II and the remarkable developments during the last thirty years indicating that justification by faith is affirmed by both Catholics and Protestants, some speak of our time as an “ecumenical winter.” Some question the ecumenical future, given that ecumenical dialogue and activity have not brought about structural unity or doctrinal uniformity among orthodox Christians. Nevertheless, we are witnessing greater mutuality today in terms of Christian witness to the world.
Some of this mutuality stems from “receptive ecumenism”—a posture that emphasizes both one’s own ecclesial shortcomings as well as other communions’ contributions to Christian unity as we seek the healing of the body of Christ. Apart from tangible measures of Christian unity, the world will not believe that the Son has been sent by the Father (John 17). The receptive ecumenical outlook, then, can help us move beyond competition, condescension, and combativeness. It also allows us to discern between true and false ecumenism.
Eduardo Echeverria, professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, models this receptive mode in his latest book, Are We Together? Echeverria takes as his foils Gregg Allison and Leonardo De Chirico, evangelical Baptist theologians who reject the very possibility of unity between Catholics and Protestants and insist that we don’t share what C. S. Lewis called the “solid center” of Christianity. Echeverria’s strategy is to critique their understanding and assessment of Roman Catholicism along the lines of two “hermeneutical axes”: the relationship between nature and grace, and the Christ-church interconnection.
In response to the supposed nature-grace tension posited by his interlocutors, Echeverria distinguishes between a hard (or strict) dualism and a softer version. In the latter, grace restores, confirms, and completes nature, just as yeast leavens the whole lump of dough. Nature, thus conceived, discloses to us the objectivity of divine realities. It accords with our design, and thus how we should function. Nature possesses an intrinsic stability. Hard dualism, by contrast, entails the strict divorce of nature and grace, and wrongly presumes that sin eradicates our fundamental design. To embrace such a “discontinuity” between nature and grace has catastrophic anthropological and ethical implications, stunting a proper understanding of both creation and redemption, while preventing any sort of witness to the world based on the natural moral law and reason. But nature does offer some knowledge of God, as St. Paul’s argument in Romans 1 and 2 makes clear. C. S. Lewis, in his essay “On Ethics,” agrees: The idea that Christianity brought “a new ethical code into the world is a grave error,” inasmuch as “a moral law [was] already known and already broken.”
Is our nature tainted? By all means. But is it removed or annihilated? Most assuredly not. The imago Dei cannot be eliminated, only reaffirmed. In noting how grace and nature intersect, Echeverria rightly observes that redemption restores our nature, our design. A strict or hard dualism, on the other hand, divorces creation and redemption. Relatedly, it divorces faith and reason, assuming that Athens and Jerusalem have little or nothing to do with one another. This discontinuity results in denial of the natural law. The examples of marriage and childbirth highlight the absurdity of such a denial: People do not stop having children because of sin’s effects; they do not stop having great joy through having children. Family and marriage remain wonderful, sacred, and desirable in spite of sin.
Helpfully, Echeverria observes that Roman Catholic and Reformed Protestant views of nature and grace are complementary. All of the magisterial Protestant reformers affirmed the natural law, even when it was not their focus. In this regard they agreed fully with their Catholic contemporaries.
In his discussion of “The Christ-Church Interconnection,” Echeverria emphasizes the far-reaching implications of the doctrine of incarnation. Here we may distinguish between large-“I” Incarnation—that is, the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us (John 1)—and the small-“i” incarnation of the Word being made flesh in us, the church, and through us to the world for redemptive purposes. Christians incarnate or mediate Christ’s presence to the entire world; this is the clear, uncontroversial teaching of the entire New Testament and the through-line of all of Scripture. God has always had a “redeemed” community, a “church,” an “Israel,” a people set apart. In this sense our ecclesiology is anchored in providence, incarnation, and eschatology. The church is instrumental; she is not the end or goal, the telos. She is a means of grace in this already-but-not-yet understanding of the kingdom of God.
Correlatively, Echeverria insists that the sacraments, in their concrete and continual expression, themselves demonstrate the ongoing reality of God’s mediated grace. Moreover, the sacraments apply to the visible church, thereby fostering and confirming her visible unity. Reformed Protestants can disagree with Catholics as to the mode of sacramental operation while still affirming its substance and centrality. All Christians can affirm that without the sacraments there is no Christian church. All can affirm the mystery of Christ’s presence, even when we embrace different accounts of this mystery. At bottom, because they are efficacious, the sacraments are a testimony to our unity in Christ.
There are two opposite errors in ecumenical thinking: the “fortress church” mentality (anti-Catholic or anti-Protestant) and the falsely irenic “lowest common denominator” mentality. Historically, Protestant identity—and I write as a Protestant—has been largely defined by “who we are not.” However, any unity that we as Christians profess rests on what we have in common. Legitimate ecumenical dialogue or activity distinguishes between essential and non-essential beliefs, between intractable disputes and mere disagreements, between primary and secondary doctrines, thus approximating what Vatican II and Echeverria call a “hierarchy of truths.”
Ecumenism, rightly conceived, is not apologetics (i.e., a defense of what we believe). Rather, it is cooperation without compromise. Such cooperation is both a “gift” (per John Paul II) and a duty, in accordance with Jesus’s burden (John 17). The question all Christians must wrestle with is whether the world will believe, absent some visible form of Christian unity.
J. Daryl Charles is author of the forthcoming book Our Secular Vocation and co-editor of Just War and Christian Traditions.
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Image by World History Encyclopedia licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.