15 April 2015

Revisiting Evangelicals and Catholics Together

Commentators are revisiting the issue of ECT or Evangelicals and Catholics Together. The original document was penned in 1994 and since it has been about twenty years, it's definitely a time for reflection.

Sadly I'm not terribly impressed with the analysis.

The main point of contention is the fact that Protestants in some formal sense joined together with Roman Catholics and yet the issue of the gospel hasn't been resolved. The issues which prompted the Reformation are being ignored.

I think this misses two critical points.

The related podcast I was listening to earlier this week addressed Sola Scriptura one time, but only for a brief moment. I was waiting for elaboration but it never came. For a moment I thought they would focus on the real issue, but it was missed.

The question of Authority is the salient issue. One's Authority determines one's doctrine. You can't discuss the doctrine of Justification unless you first establish the basis for determining it. Contrary to the opinions of most commentators, Justification is not the first question.

It's not Sola Fide (Faith Alone) vs. Rome's faith plus works.

The question of Authority defines this issue and all others. What's your authority for determining doctrine? This is why Rome is not a Church and lost its claims to being one centuries before the Reformation. And yet for many Protestants to make this delineation leads to some disturbing implications. ..

Rome anathematized Sola Fide at the Council of Trent in the 16th century and yet it must also be noted the Lutheran formulation of Sola Fide was indeed a historical novelty. You will find Salvation by Grace through Faith in previous eras of Church History but you won't find that specific Lutheran formulation which builds an entire system around the doctrine. It's simply not there. People will try to locate it in the theology of the Brethren of the Common Life, the Waldensians, Bernard, Augustine or the Fathers. But it's not there. Even Jerome who once used the term clearly did not hold to a Lutheran view of Justification or Faith.

The issue is not so much the word 'alone' but how that insertion plays out theologically. It generates a specific notion of what faith is and also takes Justification and makes into not only the 'mark' of the Church but the centerpiece of a theological system.

Lutheranism and many other Protestants read the rest of Scripture through this lens, but Lutherans went further and divided Scripture into the hitherto unknown categories of Law and Gospel. We're not speaking of the Redemptive-Historical division between Old and New Covenants, but a new hermeneutic, a complete recasting of all imperatives as almost hypothetical categories which are not meant to demonstrate faith in any sense.

Also, it must be pointed out that Lutherans, conservative Methodists, Calvinists and others will all affirm the doctrine of Sola Fide and yet all mean rather different things by it.

Rome's issue of faith plus works is actually a misrepresentation of their system. It's not just faith plus works that's a problem. James teaches that. It depends of course on what is meant by it. And how do we determine that? Again that's another question which comes first. What is the Bible? What are its implications for Christian thought? By no means do all Protestants agree.

As a Biblicist, I am not terribly impressed with the philosophical foundations of Confessionalism. I would argue it too undermines Biblical authority and establishes human reason as the arbiter of Scripture. It has led to extra-Scriptural doctrines and practices as well as a minimalizing of significant portions of Scripture. In some cases, the commitment to systemic thought has all but eradicated whole categories of doctrine and ethics.

Rome's problem with regard to the gospel is the extra-Scriptural sacramental system, the hosts of doctrines and practices that are rooted in tradition and philosophy, not revelation. This man-made system is the means by which grace functions, something unknown and opposed to New Testament teachings. The totality of their system buries the authority of Scripture and its implications. They like many other false churches have placed their authority above revelation.

To reduce the question to Justification is to miss the point and the real issue. It fails to understand the context of Roman Catholicism in history. Just because they did not formally deny Sola Fide until the 16th century does not mean they were 'The Church' up to that point. Rome had abandoned the gospel many centuries before Martin Luther, because Rome had long ago abandoned Scripture as its authority.

And yet for many, Justification is the main issue. You can have a Pope, a false catholicity rooted in the claims of a man-made hierarchy, dozens of extra-Biblical practices, traditions and teachings and yet as long you don't formally deny Sola Fide... you're still the legitimate Church.

That is a reductionist understanding of both the Church and the gospel and certainly an impoverished understanding of Church history.

Of course it must be said that many Protestants, if not most, essentially and effectively deny Sola Scriptura. No one really wants to work out the implications of that. For many it functions as the starting point for a system that you build. Their system might look a bit more like the New Testament than Rome, but I would argue that's due to time not principle. They haven't had enough time to fully work out the implications of their system. The changes and shifts don't happen overnight. Most Protestant churches are on the same road. It sometimes looks different but this is due to cultural context, not a difference in principle.

So then the argument ends up being not True Gospel vs. False, but System vs. System.

It just happens to be that one system has made Sola Fide the central doctrine around which all others are built. This is contrasted with another system that is Sacerdotal. Roman salvation is about union with the hierarchy and a willingness to submit to its system.

One system tends to end up reducing saving faith to an intellectual assent while the other system teaches not so much faith plus works but a kind of superstition attached to the extra-Biblical symbols and an institution.

But in both cases it is the System which is supreme and the Protestant answer to Rome ends up being on equally shaky ground. The dividing issues are of a secondary level, rather than dealing with the essential point.

This is problematic and a very flawed understanding of the authority of Scripture.

Secondly, the real basis of ECT which also seems to be largely missed in the reflections and contemporary discussion is not purely ecumenical but political.

They weren't trying to create 'unity' to forge a new ecclesiastical arrangement, a new catholicity. No, Bill Clinton was president, the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition had failed and the Culture Wars had intensified. Many Evangelicals admired Pope John Paul II and the perceived role Catholicism was playing both in the United States and during the Cold War.

They were desperate to form a political alliance to expand and empower the political agenda. This new expanded version of the Christian Right has a mixed record, but overall it has been pretty successful scoring massive political victories in 1994, the 1998 House impeachment of Clinton, and in the 2000, 2004 and 2010 elections. And yet they're still losing the overall Culture War.

There are a host of theological problems associated with this politicized motivation but since they are shared by most critics of ECT you can't expect them to focus on this very critical issue.

I have heard about the shift among Evangelicals with regard to their thinking about Catholics. I think we've all seen it. But it seems many have forgotten that it wasn't that many years ago that Catholics were not viewed as Christians in any sense! Indeed many Evangelicals now believe that Catholics are their brethren and in some cases are critical of those who attack Rome. They believe the Church's enemies are not within, and of a doctrinal nature, but are instead the forces of secularism.

The New Testament is no longer their model. They're not fighting for Scripture but for the system generated by the extra-Scriptural concept of Christendom.

This is the real danger of ECT. It opens the doors of the Church (so to speak) to error and false teaching. And it misidentifies the enemies and threats to the Church.

Secular people are lost but they can't harm us unless we (as a Church) lose our antithesis, become confused about our identity and bring their philosophies into the Church (1 Cor 5.9-13).

False teachers and their doctrines can undermine pervert and destroy the Church and that's been the fruit and legacy of ECT.

Dominionism has overtaken the Church and many believe politics is how we build the Kingdom of God. They erroneously believe Western Civilization 'is' the Kingdom of God. For many during the last presidential election, the agent they looked to was a Roman Catholic candidate in the person of Rick Santorum... a Romanist whose opinions largely echo that of Opus Dei and Francisco Franco.

Dominionism is the real issue that all of these commentators are missing. It seems to be the basis of a new ecumenical framework or depending on how you look at it... a great apostasy.

They are building the Kingdom in man's image and have sold out to the quest for power.

The gospel isn't at stake.

These folks lost it long ago and they don't seem to have the tools to recover it.

Some related posts: