Evangelicals and Catholics Together: A Post-Mortem

By Bill Scudder
(Used with permission)

The Random House College Dictionary defines "Evangelical" as:

1. Pertaining to and in keeping with the Gospel and its teachings. 2. Belonging to or designating the Christian churchs that emphasize the teaching and authority of the scriptures, esp. of the New Testiment, in opposition to the institutional authority of the church itself.

In the late 1950s a certain segment of Evangelicals promoted ecumenical meetings with Roman Catholics including priests from the Catholic Church, based on experience and not the word of God. And then in 1994 it became official with the publication of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT).

Since then the meaning of Evangelical seems to have changed for many "Evangelicals." It is no wonder that our Reformed brothers who considered us friends are puzzled by the actions of some of our leading Evangelicals. They tried to warn us as they saw the doctrine of Justification by grace through faith being watered down for the cause of ecumenism based on experience rather than the scriptures. There may come a day when we will have to have a Reformation in the Protestant Evangelical Church.


used with permission by the author.

Evangelicals and Catholics Together: A Post-Mortem

R. Scott Clark Associate Professor of Church History
Westminster Seminary California
(c) R. S. Clark, 2001.

Since the 1994 publication of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), the evangelical body has been convulsed periodically over the doctrine of justification. The patient, to strain a metaphor, sustained a second attack in 1998 with publication of ECT II or The Gift of Salvation. Those were followed by an attempted remedy, the June, 1999 publication, in Christianity Today, of "The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration." Not to be upstaged, the mainline Lutherans also signed a pact with Roman Catholics in 2000 known as the "Joint Declaration.

"This series of events has puzzled some Reformed Christians. After all, it had seemed to many Reformed folk over the last 50 years that the evangelicals were our friends. We had an arrangement: the Calvinists wrote the books and the enthusiastic evangelicals did the legwork. In that period we had made common cause with the evangelicals on the doctrine of the truthfulness and reliability of Scripture. One had only to think of the founder of Christianity Today, Carl Henry, author of a massive series of works defending the Scriptures to see the strength of the movement. Yes, we said, we have our differences (e.g., on the church and sacraments) but these evangelicals, we said, are our friends.

There were warning signals however. Decades ago Cornelius Van Til at Westminster Seminary had warned that the Reformed are not really "evangelicals" at all, and that despite the appearance of family relations, there were deep-seated differences. We Reformed, Van Til said, begin with the triune God, with divine revelation and the objective work of Christ for sinners. The evangelicals, he warned, begin with religious experience.

In 1990 Robert Brow published his now infamous essay, in Christianity Today, "Evangelical Megashift" in which he proved Van Til right and signaled a sharp departure from what had long been regarded as evangelical theological norms. One of megashifts touched the doctrine of justification. We need, he said, to leave the cold courtroom metaphor for justification for a warm family analogy to describe our relations with God. We should not think of him as a judge, but as a Father. Sin is not a judicial problem, it is a family problem. God no more excludes people from his family on account of sin than a father throws out his children because they err.

It is not hard to see the fallacies of Brow’s reasoning and the danger of his assumptions. The same God who has judged our sins in the death of Christ has become, for the sake of his justice, our Father (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 26; Romans 8:15-17).

Brow was touting as new nothing more than an elixir made of evangelical pietism, old-fashioned liberal universalism with a dash of Roman Catholic moralism added for flavor. Condemned by many as a seducer, it turns out that Brow was a prophet of a new wave of baby-boomer evangelicals tired not only of their father's Oldsmobile, but of the Reformation doctrine of justification.

Why were the evangelicals megashifting? As it turns out, according to some historians of American religion, the evangelicals have been since the 18th century, not transformers of culture, nor in antithesis to it, but the products of it. They live in symbiosis with it. As the culture slid into the televised abyss of narcissism, they had to adapt or die. If the culture absolutely rejects a transcendent God or objective reality, the evangelicals had to reject the old Reformed religion in favor of a more marketable commodity.

Hence the rise of ECT (1994). Threatened by apparent social decay which could not be halted by Promise Keepers rallies or revivals promised by Campus Crusade for Christ, the evangelicals turned and lifted their eyes to the hills whence comes their help. In this case, they turned not to the sovereign God of the Scriptures but to Rome, the single largest institutional religious presence in American culture. If the evangelicals could sign a d’tente with Rome, then perhaps they could not only continue to surf the American cultural wave and perhaps even turn the tide. Father Richard John Neuhaus, a relatively recent convert from mainline Lutheranism to Rome was happy to oblige them.

Neuhaus held a series of high level meetings, chiefly with evangelical leader and former Nixon aide, Charles "Chuck" Colson. The two of them developed ECT, a document which purported to end the 400 year old war between Rome and Protestants. What it actually did was ignite a fire storm of protest led by confessional Calvinists.

Prominent evangelical co-signers such as J. I. Packer defended the document. When asked to explain how; having defended stoutly the Reformation doctrines of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone; he could apparently give them all away, Packer responded with an answer which can only be described as the equivalent of saying, "It seemed like the thing to do at the time." Still stinging from rebukes by the likes of Mike Horton (now Associate Professor at Westminster Seminary in California) and R. C. Sproul, the ECT crowd tried once more to get it right in The Gift of Salvation (1998). This time they addressed directly the matter of justification. They found even more common ground between evangelicals and Rome. Whereas it seemed clear to most that the evangelicals had given up too much in ECT, in The Gift of Salvation, the evangelicals appeared to win the better of it. The Gift of Salvation declared that justification "is not earned by any good works or merits of our own¦". It continued, "We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide)." It even used the expression, "justified sinners" something which some felt no honest Roman Catholic could ever subscribe.

The list of signatories was truly impressive. Among them were Harold O. J. Brown, Os Guinness, Richard Mouw, Mark Noll and, of course J. I. Packer. There was, however, ambiguity in the statement. One part of the document seemed to create the impression of a Roman Catholic capitulation to the Protestant doctrine, but a later passage asserts that there continues to be questions about "the historic uses of the language of justification as it relates to imputed and transformative righteousness.”

Confessional Reformed folk were also troubled by key omissions. For example, though one paragraph emphasizes that we are just before God on the basis of "Christ’s righteousness alone" by virtue of God’s declaration, the statement does not use the language of imputation. Since Rome has always believed that salvation is by God’s transforming grace (Council of Trent 6.7), this is a significant omission. Indeed, the language of imputation occurs only in a section of denials. What the Roman signatories, chief among them Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy “papal legate to the evangelicals” gave with one hand, they took away with the other. In effect saying that they retain the right to hold their traditional Tridentine doctrine of justification by sanctification. This was no evangelical victory, rather it only proves that, given the promise of increased social influence, Roman Cardinals can get anxious evangelicals to sign almost anything.

Though the ECT documents may have brought the evangelicals a step closer to Rome, they created a rift between those who signed and those who would not. Into this breach comes The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration. Drafted by evangelical notables such as Don Carson, Harold Myra, J. I. Packer and R. C. Sproul, this document deserves our attention.

If only because it gets right the decisive matter of imputation, Celebration is vastly superior to the two ECT documents. According to Celebration, God justifies sinners by "imputing (reckoning, crediting, counting, accounting) righteousness to them" which benefit they receive "through faith in Christ alone¦". It makes clear that sanctification is the fruit of justification and not the ground or instrument of it. The document has a fairly distinctly Reformed tint. For example, it affirms the absolute necessity of teaching the imputation of the active obedience of Christ as part of the Biblical gospel and it rejects categorically the doctrine of the imparting or infusion of justice as the ground of justification.

Perhaps one of the most encouraging signs about this document is the reaction of some evangelicals who feel left out. In the most recent number of Books and Culture, Robert H. Gundry of Westmont College, lamented that not only was he not invited to sign Celebration, but that he would not because it was too Reformed.

There are some weaknesses in Celebration, however. For example, the statement says that it is through the Gospel that we learn, in effect, the greatness of our sin and misery. This, of course, is not correct. We learn of our fallen estate through the Law (HC Q. 3; Romans 3:20). We learn of God’s saving and justifying work for us in Christ through the preaching of the Holy Gospel (HC Q. 65; Romans 10:17). This confusion of Law and Gospel is hard to overlook in a document which seeks to establish for all evangelicals what the Gospel is.

The evangelical convulsions over justification mean this: Van Til was correct. The fundamental principle of the evangelicals, at least in the Modern period, is religious enthusiasm. Because this is so, religious experience trumps truth every time. We, on the other hand, are not revivalists or enthusiasts, that is to say, we are not evangelicals.

It is clear to me that, after hearing and reading the explanations of some of the participants in the ECT process and after talking to others who were at the negotiating table, it is common religious experience, not Biblical and confessional truth which drives them.

Of the writing of books there is no end, nor it seems, is there an end in sight to attempts to unify evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Reformed Christians, however, should not feel left out. The leading lights of the largest segment of evangelicalism, the Arminians, are abandoning historic Christianity, including the doctrine of divine foreknowledge. They have always been uneasy with the Reformation. Perhaps the onset of illness in 1994 was really the result of some old errors.

As for us and our households, let us confess the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort and leave the signing of endless compromises to the revivalists. The clear Biblical teaching as summarized in all the Canons, in Confession Articles 22-24 and Catechism Q. 60 is unchanged: The sole ground of our righteousness before God is the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience (Romans 3:27-28; 4:3; Colossians 2:13-15). The sole instrument of our justification is saving faith, which is the gift of God, which looks to Christ and his righteousness alone (Romans 1:17; 3:22; Ephesians 2:8-10). This is what we mean by our sola’s, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. About these things there must be no doubt in confessional Reformed churches. The evangelical uncertainty about the gospel and the continuing quest for social influence through alliances with Rome should serve as a reminder not to hold these treasures casually. (c) R. S. Clark, 2001. Email: rsclark@wtscal.edu

Note from Ron: The cited Scriptures and excerpts from the Reformed Church's "Forms of Unity" follow.


Is the Roman Catholic Charismatic movement of God? For my personal eight year involvement with this movement and how it relates to Ecumenism, you can read it by sending request to Bill Scudder Dayton, Ohio, USA. Azusa@aol.com


Following are the passages of Scripture and articles from the Reformed Church’s “Forms of Unity” cited in the article Evangelicals and Catholics Together: A Post-Mortem, by R.S. Clark:

Belgic Confession: Article 22: Of Faith in Jesus Christ.

We believe that, to attain the true knowledge of this great mystery, the Holy Ghost kindleth in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, appropriates him, and seeks nothing more besides him. For it must needs follow, either that all things, which are requisite to our salvation, are not in Jesus Christ, or if all things are in him, that then those who possess Jesus Christ through faith, have complete salvation in him. Therefore, for any to assert, that Christ is not sufficient, but that something more is required besides him, would be too gross a blasphemy: for hence it would follow, that Christ was but half a Savior. Therefore we justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith without works. However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean, that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our Righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all his merits and so many holy works which he has done for us, and in our stead, is our Righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with him in all his benefits, which, when become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.

Article 23: Of Justification.

We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ's sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied: as David and Paul teach us, declaring this to be the happiness of man, that God imputes righteousness to him without works. And the same apostle saith, that we are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ. And therefore we always hold fast this foundation, ascribing all the glory to God, humbling ourselves before him, and acknowledging ourselves to be such as we really are, without presuming to trust in any thing in ourselves, or in any merit of ours, relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours, when we believe in him. This is sufficient to cover our iniquities, and to give us confidence in approaching to God; freeing the conscience of fear, terror and dread, without following the example of our first father, Adam, who, trembling, attempted to cover himself with fig-leaves. And verily if we should appear before God, relying on ourselves, or on any other creature, though ever so little, we should, alas! be consumed. And therefore every one must pray with David: O Lord, enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.

Article 24: Of man's Sanctification and Good Works.

We believe that this true faith being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God, and the operation of the Holy Ghost, doth regenerate and make him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin. Therefore it is so far from being true, that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man: for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith, which is called in Scripture, a faith that worketh by love, which excites man to the practice of those works, which God has commanded in his Word. Which works, as they proceed from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable in the sight of God, forasmuch as they are all sanctified by his grace: howbeit they are of no account towards our justification. For it is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works; otherwise they could not be good works, any more than the fruit of a tree can be good, before the tree itself is good. Therefore we do good works, but not to merit by them, (for what can they merit?) nay, we are beholden to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he that worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure. Let us therefore attend to what is written: when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, we are unprofitable servants; we have done that which was our duty to do. In the meantime, we do not deny that God rewards our good works, but it is through his grace that he crowns his gifts. Moreover, though we do good works, we do not found our salvation upon them; for we do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable; and although we could perform such works, still the remembrance of one sin is sufficient to make God reject them. Thus then we would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences continually vexed, if they relied not on the merits of the suffering and death of our Savior

Heidelberg Catechism Question 60. How are thou righteous before God?

Answer. Only [b]by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and [c] kept none of them, and am still [d] inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any [e] merit of mine, but only of mere [f] grace, grants [g] and [h] imputes to me, the perfect [i] satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully [j] accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; [k] inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart

[b]: Rom. 3:22ff; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8,9
[c]: Rom. 3:9ff
[d]: Rom. 7:23
[e]: Rom. 3:24
[f]: Tit. 3:5; Eph 2:8,9
[g]: Rom. 4:4,5; 2Cor. 5:19
[h]: 1John 2:1
[I]: Rom. 3:24,25
[j]: 2Cor. 5:21
[k]: Rom. 3:28; John 3:18

Canons of Dort

Romans 3:27 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.
Romans 3:28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

Romans 4:3 For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.

Colossians 2:13 And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses;
Colossians 2:14 Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross;
Colossians 2:15 And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.

Romans 1:17 For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.

Romans 3:22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:

Ephesians 2:8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
Ephesians 2:9 Not of works, lest any man should boast
. Ephesians 2:10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.

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