November 2009 - Vol. 34

A Common Witness and Growing Convergence Among Evangelicals and Catholics

In the spring of 1994, a distinguished group of Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants issued a much-discussed statement, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” (published in First Things Magazine, May 1994). That statement, commonly referred to as ECT, noted a growing “convergence and cooperation” between Evangelicals and Catholics in many public tasks, and affirmed agreement in basic articles of Christian faith while also underscoring the continuing existence of important differences. The signers promised to engage those differences in continuing conversations, and this has been done in meetings of noted theologians convened by Mr. Charles Colson and Father Richard John Neuhaus † (1936–2009) .

Starting in 1994 ECT has issued seven statements (links to articles in First Things Magazine):

The editors of ECT explained how their project developed in the 1990s. The following excerpt is from the preface to the statement on The Communion of Saints, published in March 2003. 
Evangelicals and Catholics Together, commonly called ECT, …began as a  project  in 1992 with a conference occasioned by growing and often violent conflicts between Catholics and evangelical Protestants in Latin America. In May 1994 we issued a statement, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” 
In that statement we explained why it is necessary for us, as “brothers and sisters in Christ,” to work with one another, and not against one another, in the great task of evangelization, and to support one another in facing up to the ominous moral, cultural, and spiritual threats of our time. The signers of the statement pledged themselves to such Christian solidarity and, while this initiative has not been without its critics, both Evangelical and Catholic, we are greatly heartened by the thousands who have joined in that pledge, both in this country and in other parts of the world.

Solidarity grounded in the Gospel 
Such solidarity, if it is to be true and enduring, must be grounded in nothing less than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This has been an insistent theme of ECT, reaffirmed every step of the way: the only unity that is pleasing to God, and  therefore the only unity we can seek, is unity in the Truth. 

This theme was deepened and exemplified in the 1997 statement, “The Gift of Salvation.” In that statement we together affirmed the way in which we understand justification by faith alone as a gift received by God’s grace alone because of Christ alone. In that statement, we were able to say together:

We agree that justification is not earned by any good works or merits of our own; it is entirely God’s gift, conferred through the Father’s sheer graciousness, out of the love that He bears us in His Son, who suffered on our behalf and rose from the dead for our justification. . . . The New Testament makes it clear that the gift of justification is received through faith. “By grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). By faith, which is also the gift of God, we repent of our sins and freely adhere to the gospel, the good news of God’s saving work for us in Christ. By our response of faith to Christ, we enter into the blessings promised by the gospel. Faith is not merely intellectual assent but an act of the whole person, involving the mind, the will, and the affections, issuing in a changed life. We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).

Recasting old disputes in new and promising ways
 At every step along the way, we have also noted carefully the questions on which, as Evangelicals and Catholics, we continue to disagree. On the long list of what might be called traditional disagreements between evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics is the relationship between Scripture and tradition. In fact, there are few disagreements on the list that have been more agitated over the centuries. The disagreement is often posed in a way that calls for a stark choice between Scripture alone (sola scriptura), on the one hand, or Scripture and authoritative tradition, on the other. In “Your Word is Truth,” our statement issued in 2002, we were able to say together:

There always have been, and likely will be until our Lord returns in glory, disputes and disagreements about how rightly to discern the teaching of the Word of God in Holy Scripture. We affirm that Scripture is to be read in company with the community of faith past and present. Individual ideas of what the Bible means must be brought to the bar of discussion and assessment by the wider fellowship. “The church of the living God is the pillar and bulwark of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Because Christ’s Church is the pillar and bulwark of truth, in disputes over conflicting interpretations of the Word of God the Church must be capable of discerning true teaching and setting it forth with clarity.

Each of the above statements is the result of intensive prayer, study, and uncompromisingly candid discussion among the Evangelicals and Catholics involved. In each statement we carefully note that we have not resolved all our differences on the subjects addressed, and it should be evident that we resolutely reject any thought of evading such differences. We believe, however, that these statements go a long way toward creating greater mutual understanding and recasting old disputes in new and promising ways.

A work in progress
We understand Evangelicals and Catholics Together as a work in progress. We are convinced that this is a work of the Holy Spirit. This work was underway long before ECT was begun. In recent decades, Evangelicals and Catholics have encountered one another as brothers and sisters in Christ in many forums, and especially as they contend together for a culture of life that will protect the unborn, the aged, the handicapped, and others who are often deemed to be expendable. These encounters and the patterns of cooperation they have produced are aptly described as “the ecumenism of the trenches.” ECT can be understood as making explicit what was implicit: that our unity in action is the fruit of our unity in faith. Our unity in action and in faith is by no means perfect. If this is the work of the Holy Spirit, as we firmly believe, it will continue long after the present participants in ECT have departed this life. We do not know how or when, but we do believe that the prayer of our Lord in John 17 will be answered, that his disciples will be one in a way that the world will see and will believe that he was sent by the Father.

Contending together for a Christian worldview
Moreover, our historical circumstance makes our common witness increasingly urgent. Our circumstance is one of unremitting conflict between distinct and antithetical worldviews, or understandings of reality. Evangelicals and Catholics together share, and must together contend
for, the Christian worldview. Whatever differences there have been between us in the past, and whatever differences persist still today, we stand side by side in contending for the truth of that understanding of reality. Such solidarity in opposition to the forces of unbelief is aptly called
cobelligerency, and such cobelligerency is the more solid as it is more firmly grounded in the Bible, the creeds, and our confession and worship of Jesus Christ as Lord. With this statement and related undertakings, we seek to deepen our understanding of the common faith that binds us so that we might more effectively address the common tasks that claim us.

A century ago, the noted Protestant leader Abraham Kuyper recognized that the common defense of a Christian worldview made necessary precisely the kind of effort in which we are today engaged. Kuyper argued that, when we understand Christianity also as a worldview, we “might be enabled once more to take our stand by the side of Romanism in opposition to modern pantheism.” In a similar way, Catholic teaching today, as notably set forth by John Paul II, strongly encourages the fullest possible cooperation among Christians in contending for a culture of life and of truth against the encroaching culture of death and deceit. If then anyone asks about the purpose of this statement and of the ongoing project of which it is part, the answer is clear: it is to evangelize more effectively, to bear witness to the world that Jesus is the Lord and Savior sent by the Father, and to bring that truth to bear on every dimension of life – just as we are commanded to do.

An unofficial initiative 
It must be added that ECT is an unofficial initiative. We speak from and to the communities of which we are part, but we do not presume to speak for them. We wholeheartedly support the several official theological dialogues between Evangelicals and Catholics. ECT is an ancillary initiative, serving as a kind of advance scouting party to explore possibilities, and, as such, has received much appreciated encouragement from many sources, both Evangelical and Catholic. We have no illusions that the centuries-long wounds of our divisions will be quickly or easily healed. We are convinced that ECT is part of a project that is God’s before it is ours, and is only ours because it is God’s. We offer this statement … in the spirit of the concluding words of our first statement in 1994: “This is a time of opportunity – and, if of opportunity then of responsibility – for Evangelicals and Catholics to be Christians together in a way that helps prepare the world for the coming of Him to whom belongs the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.”

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