Rev. denHartog is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.
Recently a group of prominent evangelical leaders and conservative Roman Catholic scholars spent some eight months drafting a document which sets forth their views on unity and cooperation between Catholics and Evangelicals for the 21st century. The title of this document is “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” It was signed by a long list of notable evangelicals, including, among others, Mr. Charles Colson of the Prison Fellowship, Dr. J.I. Packer of Regent College, OS Guinness from the Trinity Forum, Bill Bright, head of Campus Crusade, televangelist Pat Robertson, Richard Mouw of Fuller Seminary, Mark Noll of Wheaton College, and John White of Geneva College. Many of these are leading and respected evangelicals of our time who have authored numerous books and gained wide popularity as conference speakers.
This venture has created quite a stir in the evangelical world and deeply shocked some of the more conservative evangelicals in North America. We believe that this document represents a shameful and evil compromise of the Christian faith and indicates how far some Protestant leaders of our day are willing to go to join with the Roman Church and forget about the great Reformation of the 16th century. Space limitation prevents us from quoting the entire eight pages of this document. We will in this article give only a brief summary of some of the main tenets proposed and our critique of them.
The subtitle of this statement is “The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” The expressed purpose of this effort is somehow to bring together the two major branches of Christianity, namely Evangelicals and Roman Catholics, divided by the Reformation. The noble- objective for doing this is to present to the world a united Christian front to face the great challenges of the third millennium. We quote the introduction:
We are Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics who have been led through prayer, study, and discussion to common convictions about Christian faith and mission. This statement cannot speak officially for our communities. It does intend to speak responsibly from our communities and to our communities. In this statement we address what we have discovered both about our unity and about our differences. We are aware that our experience reflects the distinctive circumstances and opportunities of Evangelical and Catholics living together in North America. At the same time we believe that what we have discovered and resolved is pertinent to the relationship between Evangelicals and Catholics in other parts of the world. We therefore commend this statement, to their prayerful consideration.
Further opening statements of the document stress the urgency for Christian unity. Included is the noble sounding statement: “As Christ is one, so the Christian mission is one.” Reference is made to the great High Priestly prayer of our Lord in which He prayed for the unity of the church.
Included in this document is a brief statement of faith which Roman Catholics and Protestants supposedly have in common. Several passages of Scripture are quoted to give the appearance of legitimacy to this statement of faith. The final basis for unity between Catholics and Evangelicals is to be the Apostles’ Creed, which is to be the only common confession.
It is declared that evangelicals ought to recognize that Roman Catholics and Protestants are brothers and sisters in Christ. In several places Protestants and Catholics are called upon to repent, of the evil judgments they have in the past made of one another’s doctrines and accept each other in the spirit of Christian love. While it is recognized that there are long-standing differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants, these are not to be considered of such magnitude that they preclude working together to face the challenges of our times. By all means these two camps in Christendom should not look at each other as enemies, neither should they engage in “sheep stealing” in each other’s communions. In the language of the statement: “in view of the large number of non-Christians in the world and the enormous challenge of our common evangelistic task, it is neither theologically legitimate nor a prudent use of our resources for one Christian community to proselytize among active adherents of another Christian community.”
What this is saying is that Protestants ought to cease and desist from seeking to convert Roman Catholics to Protestantism since both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism are equally legitimate expressions of the true Christian religion. One can be saved either by believing Protestant doctrine and practice or Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. Catholics and Evangelicals should at least not imagine that their differences are very major and they should unite together in the love of Christ. After all, the great mark of the disciples of Christ is that they love each other. Roman Catholics and Evangelicals must demonstrate this love by joining together in a united witness to the world.
Most of the wording of this statement focuses on what its proponents believe to be the great challenges of the third millennium. The greatest challenge of all is massive worldwide missions to seek to bring to conversion the millions of people in the world that still are not Christians. The two greatest communities in world Christianity “that are most evangelistically assertive and most rapidly growing are Evangelicals and Catholics.” It is to be deplored that in many parts of the world these two communities are living in conflict and animosity when they should be cooperating with each other. The division between these two is called “the scandal of the cross.” The urgency of the challenge of world missions is increased by the rapid growth and spread of the Moslem religion, a religion hostile to Christianity and actively seeking to prevent the preaching of the gospel in Moslem countries. In connection with this latter, “encouraging” words are spoken about open and friendly dialogue between Moslems and Christians initiated recently by Pope John Paul II.
Catholics and Evangelicals must contend together for religious freedom which is called “the source and shield of all freedoms.” Pope John Paul is cited as the great champion of our times of religious freedom.
The other great challenges mentioned are, largely, seeking a remedy for the great moral and social issues of our modern world. Included are issues such as the exclusion of religion from the schools of our land; abortion; the continued exploitation of women in many societies; the rising tide of voices to legitimatize euthanasia; concerns about public education; growing immorality among today’s youth; and the widespread promotion of pornography and the celebration of sex and violence by the modern-day media. A plea is made for mutual acceptance among the races of the world and equality across sexes and classes of peoples in the world. Statements are made about promoting free and vibrant market economies for the equal distribution of the world’s wealth. An appeal is even made for renewed appreciation of Western culture and for the realistic and responsible understanding of the role of America in world affairs. One wonders how the church, so busy with all these social and political issues, will ever have any time to preach the gospel and take care of the people of God. In the lengthy section describing all the social ills of our times, much language is borrowed from American political philosophy and ideology.
In the concluding paragraphs of this statement a fervent appeal is once again made for Catholics and Evangelicals to recognize that both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism are legitimate expressions of the Christian faith. Though there is to be appreciation for long-standing’ differences of expression of Christianity, we ought to unite as brothers and sisters in Christ in promoting the cause of the kingdom of Christ Jesus. It is suggested that there is little hope of ever determining with finality the right interpretation of the Bible in regards to the great doctrines of Scripture. Therefore we ought to tolerate widely different interpretations, realizing that no one really has the final answer to what truth is anyway.
What must we say about all of this? First of all, any true Protestant ought to be alarmed that now, almost five hundred years after the Reformation, it is being strongly suggested that the Reformation was largely a mistake, an evil blot on the history of Christianity. The doctrinal differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism that were so valiantly contended for in the Reformation were really of very little moment. One can be saved, after all, either as a Roman Catholic or as a Protestant. The thousands of martyrs who gave their lives for the cause of the precious truth of the gospel were seriously mistaken in their zeal and really died in vain. There was no need for all of this. In fact, the above mentioned document even suggests that the judgment of Roman Catholic doctrine by the great Reformers was an evil that the modern- day church ought to repent of.
In the interest of unity between Catholics and Protestants, doctrinal differences should at least be deemphasized. The statement of faith presented by the proponents mentioned above suggests a minimizing of doctrine to a few lowest common denominators, vague statements of truth. Everyone who “accepts Jesus as Lord” in a very general way is to be recognized as a legitimate Christian. The Apostles’ Creed is to be the only statement of doctrinal agreement. The result of this, however, is that almost all the great and distinctive doctrines of the Reformed faith are relegated to a place of minor importance or at least are stated in such a vague and general way that everyone can agree. This is a very great evil. The doctrines of the Reformed faith restored by God to His beloved church in the Reformation were not minor points of truth, but they constitute the very heart of the gospel.
Not only is the statement of faith of this document to be criticized for its generalities and vagueness, it is to be criticized .most severely for leaving out the central tenets of the gospel. The most shocking example of this is that the truth of justification by faith alone and by grace alone, the truth which everyone ought to know was the very heart of the Reformation, is considered by the supposedly Protestant Evangelical signers of this statement no longer an essential of the gospel. It is true that this statement of faith claims to believe that we “are saved by grace and through faith and because of Christ.” But no Roman Catholc has even disagreed with that. No Roman Catholic at the time of the Reformation would have disagreed with that statement. The great battle of the Reformers, the truth for which they were willing to give their very lives, was the truth that we are saved by faith alone and by gracealone, and through Christ alone. Really the one wordalone was the issue of the whole Reformation. That word stood against the great evil of Roman Catholic doctrine which teaches that we are saved in part by Christ and in part by our own good works.
The whole system of Roman Catholicism is based on this dreadful Christ-denying and God-dishonoring error. The Roman Catholic Church today has done nothing about repenting from this error. It continues by its official confessions and teaching today to deny the great doctrine of salvation by faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone. This is not a minor matter, simply a matter of difference in perspective, but a simple and plain denial of the essentials of the gospel. The statement mentioned above is guilty of selling the truth of the Reformation down the river.
Furthermore, it is not at all true that the great doctrines of salvation are so obscure in the Scriptures that centuries of theologians have not been able to discover with finality their true meaning. One of the great truths of the Reformation is the truth of the clarity of Scripture with regard to all that is necessary to know unto salvation. The true doctrine of salvation is so clearly written in the Scriptures that it can be known by every Spirit-filled child of God and must be distinctly and steadfastly maintained by the church.
What about the noble objective to preach the gospel to the world? We certainly believe that the great commission of our Lord stands until the day of His glorious return on the clouds at the end of the world. The true church of Jesus Christ must be zealous to preach the gospel wherever the Lord sends and opens the door. She must be ready to make all the necessary sacrifices, face the great challenges, fearlessly confront the dangers and hardships to be obedient unto the Lord’s commission. The preaching of the gospel must be ready to die for this cause if the Lord so calls them to. However, the cause of the preaching of the gospel is not advanced by the church when she compromises the gospel so seriously that she is left with little or no gospel to preach. The church of Jesus Christ is faithful to the great commission when she preaches the full-orbed gospel and steadfastly maintains without compromise all the glorious doctrines of the gospel, which we believe are all doctrines of the sovereign grace of God. God is glorified by that doctrine and denied when that doctrine is compromised.
Love for God and His Son Jesus Christ must be manifest in our love for the truth of God. We do not manifest this love by minimizing the gospel and reducing all its great doctrines to issues of little consequence for the faith and life and practice of the church. Love for God is manifest in receiving with humble gratitude the heritage of the truth that He has given to His church and seeking to lead the church into a deeper understanding and development of this truth, not in reducing it all to insignificant doctrine.
Yes, we must seek the true unity of the church and that in the love of Christ. But neither unity nor true love is possible when the truth of God and of Christ is ignored and compromised. We do not genuinely de for the souls of God’s elect who must be saved when we do this sort of thing.
May the Protestant church today minimize the fact that Roman Catholicism continues to maintain the gross errors that were rightly condemned by the Reformers? The Reformers condemned the Pope for claiming to be the vicar of Christ. The Pope still makes that claim today. The Reformers condemned the Pope for his claim of being able to speak ex cathedra. He still makes that claim today. The Reformers condemned the Pope as being a manifestation of the antichrist. Today so called Protestants will have friendly dialogue with him and praise him for his great achievements. The Reformers called the mass of the Roman Catholic Church “cursed idolatry” because of its claim of being a re-offering of Christ. The Reformers condemned the worship of Mary as Mariolatry. The Reformers condemned the worship of saints and of images in the church as a gross violation of the second commandment of the law of God. Not any of these things are changed in the modern- day church of Rome. What about all of this? Are these not serious errors anymore when judged by the unchangeable and infallible standard of the Word of God? Yet the above mentioned statement makes no mention of all these things.
The Reformers considered the errors of the Roman Church to be so serious that God’s people within this church had to be warned and called to come out of her for the salvation of their own soul and for the sake of the glory of God. Will the Protestant church today then agree that it is theologically illegitimate to proselytize Roman Catholics? Rather, true preachers of the gospel who love the souls of God’s elect will continue with utmost urgency to call any saint of God left in these churches out of the apostate Roman Church.
What about a united front to face the moral and social evils of our modern-day world? The true gospel has much to say about these great moral and social evils. It does not address these problems with a mixture of political humanistic philosophy and a semblance of the gospel as the document mentioned above does. The answer, the only true answer, to all these problems is genuine repentance and conversion to God worked by the sovereign power of the grace of God in the hearts of men through the true preaching of the gospel.
The Reformation must be continued, not by forgetting about its great and glorious doctrines but by constant reaffirmation of these doctrines and the faithful distinctive preaching of these doctrines by the true church of Jesus Christ. Never will the true Protestant church compromise these doctrines in a false show of the love of Christ before the world. She shows the love for Christ when she .insists that these doctrines are of such momentous significance that she is ready to die in defending and maintaining them.