As anyone who has followed what I have written on blogs in the past six years or so will be aware, an issue about which I am very interested and concerned is that of a biblical approach to Christian unity. One of the most important and thorniest aspects of Christian unity, in my opinion, has to do with how we as Evangelicals (and as Baptists) should relate to Roman Catholics and to the Roman Catholic Church at large. Having served for 18 years as a missionary in Spain, a country which traditionally has had an overwhelming Catholic majority but which in recent years has become increasingly secular, I have studied quite a bit about Catholic doctrine, and specifically about differences between Evangelical and Catholic belief and practice.
Though a number of books have been written spelling out these differences in detail (some better than others), the key issues, as I understand them, are grouped around the five solae of the Protestant Reformation: Sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”); Sola fide (“by faith alone”); Sola gratia (“by grace alone”); Solus Christus or Solo Christo (“Christ alone” or “through Christ alone”); and Soli Deo gloria (“glory to God alone”).
As I understand it, a key question related to Evangelical-Catholic relations has to do with whether or not the Roman Catholic doctrinal system truly leads to salvation. A big problem inherent in this question is that of different understandings of the term salvation itself, as well as with related concepts such as justification, regeneration, and sanctification. Particularly problematic for Baptists, other baptistic Evangelicals, and some Reformed paedobaptists, is the Catholic doctrine of baptismal regeneration, along with a supporting soteriological system that bases ongoing justification on habitual and faithful participation in the seven sacraments of the Church, especially Holy Eucharist (the Mass) and Penance (including auricular confession).
Though dialogue between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics has a diverse history, a large amount of attention has been directed to this endeavor by means of the various Evangelical and Catholics Together (ECT) meetings and documents cosponsored by Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus. While one significant area of focus of ECT is cobelligerence on social and moral concerns, the stated purpose of ECT is common witness to an alleged shared faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Of the various books and articles I have read on the subject, the following quotes from the book A View of Rome: A Guide to Understanding the Beliefs and Practices of Roman Catholics by John H. Armstrong best sum up my own position:
Historically evangelicals have believed that three visible marks determine a faithful New Testament church: a proper preaching of the gospel; a proper doctrine of the sacraments; and biblical discipline. Evangelicals cannot, by their own confession and faith, believe that Roman Catholicism is a standing, faithful New Testament church. Hopefully the reader can now see why this position is confessed.
We must not personally judge the ultimate standing before God of any individual soul. As Scripture says, “The Lord knows those who are His” (2 Timothy 2:19), and, “To his own Master [each person] stands or falls” (Romans 14:4). What we do insist, however, is that the New Testament is neither vague nor ambiguous when it reveals what a church looks like and what its message and practice is to be. We believe that Rome neither confesses nor teaches the apostolic gospel biblically. We believe that Rome does not administer and teach the sacraments properly. Because of these theological beliefs we are, sadly, obligated to conclude with the Protestant Reformers that “Rome is a fallen church!”
Because we believe Rome is fallen, we must urge Roman Catholics to trust Christ alone for salvation. We must continue to clearly preach justification by faith alone, through grace alone. This means that individual Catholics must trust in Him, not their church and its system of sacraments and personal mysticism. We believe that some Catholics may well be trusting Christ savingly, but, if they do, it will have to be in spite of the teaching of their church, not because of it” (p. 113).
Let me illustrate further. Someone invites me to join a group called “Citizens for Life.” I gladly join with a number of folks from various religious backgrounds. We are cobelligerents. Another group invites me to join in. It is called “Christians for Life.” This is a different matter. Here we now use a word that has different connotations for different peoples. Evangelicals rightly wish to use the term Christian for those who are openly committed to the gospel of Christ and the authority of Scripture. But if they keep joining groups that use names and terms broadly, before long both the meaning of the names and terms will diminish. The name Christian already means little in our culture, and the name evangelical has virtually lost its meaning in the past several decades. If this continues, the reality behind the name will likely be drastically reduced as well.
Baptists and Presbyterians have differences regarding some important doctrinal issues. But they also agree on the doctrine of the authority of Scripture and salvation by grace alone. The fact that God is outraged by the murder of unborn infants moves them to be allies in the concern they have regarding abortion. In many cases they can be more than cobelligerents. Why? Because they share a common confessional stance and a common practical view of the grace of God and the Scriptures. They are true evangelical allies in spiritual battles for the Gospel of Christ.
Devout Catholics have a high view of life. This is grounded in their moral outrage against murder and their historical theological tradition. Because evangelicals and Catholics have such substantive theological differences, we cannot relate as true allies in the same Christian faith. We can be cobelligerents in important causes, and we can continue to talk to each other in the new spirit of openness. But we cannot, and dare not, overlook the differences that we still have between us. When the distinctives are surrendered, it is the evangelicals who will give up the most, as history demonstrates. We need to pray for greater clarity in this whole matter or we will soon lose far more than we gain” (pp. 111–112).
At times it seems that evangelicalism has turned into a massive coalition of uniquely nontheological ministries all aimed at “doing something” to rescue us before it is too late.
My greatest fear is not that we will lose the culture, or even a great nation. My greatest fear is that we will lose the gospel. If we lose the gospel we will have a fallen church. We will have no real power. And we will have nothing with which to truly change the culture, one significant person at a time” (pp. 135–136).
At this point, though, I must acknowledge, with a good dose of consternation, that Armstrong has since shifted his own position to one that is much more amenable to ecumenical ties with the Roman Catholic Church (see numerous posts on his blog here as well as his books Your Church is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church and The Unity Factor: One Lord, One Church, One Mission.) Formerly a Baptist, Armstrong is currently an ordained minister with the Reformed Church in America.
And in somewhat of an ironic postscript, I will add that, while I personally remain unconvinced with regard to the viability of gospel-based ecumenism with the Roman Catholic Church, I find many of the social, moral, economic, and political positions of the Vatican and some Catholic thinkers more biblically palatable than those held by the majority of Evangelicals, whether on the Right or the Left.
See, for example, the following:
My main purpose in posting this is to solicit your response (and perhaps learn something in the process):
1. Do you think faithful Roman Catholics who consistently follow the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are our brothers and sisters in Christ and fellow members of the Body of Christ with whom we should work toward a greater spiritual unity? Why or why not?
2. What do you think of the quotes from Armstrong’s book, A View of Rome?
3. Do you think common social, moral, economic, and/or political agendas should lead to greater spiritual fellowship? Do you see any dangers in joining hands over these concerns while at the same time “sweeping under the carpet” important doctrinal differences?