Evangelicals and Catholics Together
John F. MacArthur
March 29, 1994, saw a development that some have touted as the most
significant event in Protestant-Catholic relations since the dawn of the Reformation.
A document titled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the
Third Millennium” was published with a list of more than thirty signatories–including
well-known evangelicals Pat Robertson, J.I. Packer, Os Guinness, and Bill Bright.
They were joined by leading Catholics such as John Cardinal O’Connor, Bishop
Carlos A. Sevilla, and Catholic scholar Peter Kreeft.
The twenty-five page document was drafted by a team of fifteen participants led
by Richard John Neuhaus and Charles Colson. Neuhaus is a former Lutheran
minister who converted to Catholicism in 1990, and has since been ordained to the
priesthood. Like Colson, he is an influential author and speaker.
Colson explained that “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” resulted from a series
of meetings sponsored by Neuhaus a few years ago in New York. The original
purpose of the meetings was to discuss tensions in Latin America between
Protestant missionaries and Catholic officials. “In some countries the Catholic
Church was using political power to suppress Protestant evangelistic efforts;
Protestant missionaries were being persecuted for their faith,” Colson said. “On
the other side, some evangelicals were promoting the gospel by calling the Catholic
Church the `whore of Babylon,’ the Pope, the `antichrist,’ and the like.” 1
Colson says he and others at the meetings “were moved by the words of our
Lord, calling us to be one with one another as He is one with us and with the
Father, in order that the world might know, as Jesus prayed, that Thou didst send
me.’” Colson added, “We were agreed that scripture makes the unity of true
Christians an essential–a prerequisite for Christian evangelism.” 2
The lengthy statement of accord that resulted has been praised in both the secular
and Christian press as a landmark ecumenical agreement. Especially notable is the
fact that the Catholics who signed are not from the liberal wing of Catholicism.
Signatories on both sides are conservatives, many of whom are active in the pro-life movement and other conservative political causes. Historically, evangelicals
and conservative Catholics have opposed ecumenical efforts.
One of the signatories, Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, wrote in
Christianity Today, “For too long, ecumenism has been left to Left-leaning
Catholics and mainline Protestants. For that reason alone, evangelicals should
applaud this effort and rejoice in the progress it represents.” 3
But does this new accord really represent progress, or are the essentials of the
Gospel being relegated to secondary status? Asked another way, is the spirit of
the Reformation quite dead? Should we now rejoice to see conservative
evangelicals pursuing ecumenical union with Roman Catholicism?
The list of Protestant signatories to the document is certainly impressive. Some of
these are men who have given their lives to proclaiming and defending Reformation
theology. J.I. Packer’s work is well-known through his many valuable books. His
book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, in print for several decades, has
introduced multiplied thousands to the Reformed emphasis on divine sovereignty.
He has capably defended the key Reformation doctrine of justification by faith in
several of his books. His book Fundamentalism and the Word of God is an able
defense of the authority of Scripture. Few in our generation have been more
effective advocates of Reformation theology than Dr. Packer.
Timothy George is a Harvard-educated Southern Baptist theologian who has been
influential among Calvinist Baptists. Perhaps no individual has done more than he
to reintroduce Southern Baptists to their Reformed doctrinal roots and to help
steer the Southern Baptist Convention onto a more solid theological footing. His
book Theology of the Reformers is a brilliant historical analysis of theology in the
Reformation era. Like Packer, George is thoroughly Reformed and an articulate
defender of sound doctrine.
Both of these men surely understand the gulf that divides Roman Catholicism from
the evangelical faith. It is not a philosophical or political difference, but a theological
one. And it is not a matter of trivia. The key difference between evangelicalism
and Roman Catholicism is a difference over the Gospel. The issues that separated
the Reformers from the Roman Catholic Church go to the heart of what we believe
Many people assume that with signatures from men of this stature on it,
“Evangelicals and Catholics Together” must be a trust-worthy document, not a
compromise of Reformation distinctives. But is that a safe assumption to make?
“Evangelicals and Catholics Together” is an object lesson on the importance of
biblical discernment. But it is much, much more than that. Surely it is also a
harbinger of things to come. As the pressure mounts for evangelicals to succeed in
the political realm and fight for cultural morality, they often capitulate to the new
ecumenism. This may become one of the most hotly contested issues of the
decade. The future of evangelicalism may hang in the balance.
WHAT DOES THE DOCUMENT SAY?
“Evangelicals and Catholics Together” is a lengthy document. Unfortunately, it is
impossible to reproduce the entire text here. But here are some of the highlights:
A Declaration of Unity
The document begins with this: “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” 3
Later in the Introduction, the document states, “As Christ is one, so the Christian
mission is one. That one mission can and should be advanced in diverse ways.
Legitimate diversity, however, should not be confused with existing divisions
between Christians that obscure the one Christ and hinder the one mission” (2).
“Visible unity” is the stated goal (2) of the document, which quotes John 17:21,
where the Lord Jesus prayed “that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art
in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that
Thou didst send Me.” Then this follows: “We together, Evangelicals and Catholics,
confess our sins against the unity that Christ intends for all his disciples” (2).
At this point the document’s drafters are very explicit about who they believe is
included in Christ’s prayer for unity: “The one Christ and one mission includes many
other Christians, notably the Eastern Orthodox and those Protestants not
commonly identified as Evangelical. All Christians are encompassed in the prayer,
`May they all be one’” (2).
The section that follows has the heading “We Affirm Together.” It includes this:
All who accept Christ as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ..
Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ. We have not
chosen one another, just as we have not chosen Christ. He has chosen us,
and he has chosen us to be his together (John 15). However imperfect our
communion with one another, we recognize that there is but one church of
Christ. There is one church because there is one Christ and the Church is his
body. However difficult the way, we recognize that we are called by God to
a fuller realization of our unity in the body of Christ (5).
Similar declarations of unity–and appeals for more visible manifestations of
unity–are included in every section of the document.
A Statement of Common Faith
The document highlights areas of common faith between Catholics and
evangelicals. It affirms the lordship of Christ as “the first and final affirmation that
Christians make about all of reality” (5). It identifies Christ as “the One sent by
God to be Lord and Savior of all” (5). It declares that the Scriptures are divinely
inspired and infallible (6). And it affirms the Apostles’ Creed “as an accurate
statement of Scriptural truth” (6). The Apostles’ Creed is reproduced in its entirety
as part of the document.
The pact also includes this statement about salvation:
We affirm together that we are justified by grace through faith because of
Christ. Living faith is active in love that is nothing less than the love of
Christ, for we together say with Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is
no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the
flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for
me” (Galatians 2) (5).
Although that statement has been celebrated as a remarkable concession on the
Catholic participants’ part, as we shall see, it actually says nothing that has not
been affirmed by the Catholic Church since the time of the Reformation. The real
issue under debate between Roman Catholicism and historic
evangelicalism–justification by faith alone–is carefully avoided throughout
“Evangelicals and Catholics Together.”
A Statement of Doctrinal Difference
Those who drafted the accord did acknowledge other important areas of doctrinal
difference between Roman Catholicism and evangelicalism. And they correctly
observed that real unity cannot be achieved merely by glossing over Catholic-evangelical differences. In fact, near the end of the Introduction, they state, “we
reject any appearance of harmony that is purchased at the price of truth” (4).
In a section titled “We Search Together,” they said, “we do not presume to
suggest that we can resolve the deep and long-standing differences between
Evangelicals and Catholics. Indeed these differences may never be resolved short
of the Kingdom Come” (9).
How are these differences to be addressed? They “must be tested in disciplined
and sustained conversation. In this connection we warmly commend and
encourage the formal theological dialogues of recent years between Roman
Catholics and Evangelicals” (9).
The document continues,
We note some of the differences and disagreements that must be addressed
more fully and candidly in order to strengthen between us a relationship of
trust in obedience to truth. Among points of difference in doctrine, worship,
practice, and piety that are frequently thought to divide us are these:
- The church as an integral part of the Gospel, or the church as a
communal consequences of the Gospel.
- The church as visible communion or invisible fellowship of true
- The sole authority of Scripture (sola Scriptura) or Scripture as
authoritatively interpreted in the church.
- The “soul freedom” of the individual Christian or the Magisterium
(teaching authority) of the community.
- The church as local congregation or universal communion.
- Ministry ordered in apostolic succession or the priesthood of all
- The Lord’s Supper as eucharistic sacrifice or memorial meal.
- Remembrance of Mary and the saints or devotion to Mary and
- Baptism as sacrament of regeneration or testimony to
- This account of differences is by no means complete (9-10).
The document even acknowledges the solemn importance of many Catholic-evangelical differences. The signers expressly confess that some of the differences
are so profound that they impinge on the Gospel itself:
On these questions, and other questions implied by them, Evangelicals hold
that the Catholic church has gone beyond Scripture, adding teachings and
practices that detract from or compromise the Gospel of God’s saving grce
in Christ. Catholics, in turn, hold that such teachings and practices re
grounded in Scripture and beyond the fullness of God’s revelation. Their
rejection, Catholics say, results in a truncated and reduced understanding of
the Christian reality (10-11).
A Mandate for Common Mission
But the theme that runs like a thread through “Evangelicals and Catholics Together”
is identified by the document’s subtitle: “The Christian Mission in the Third
Millennium.” The primary motivation behind the accord is the desire to eradicate
differences that supposedly “obscure the one Christ and hinder the one mission”
(2). How can this be done without resolving doctrinal matters that affect the
Gospel is not explained.
But the Gospel is clearly not the driving concern of “Evangelicals and Catholics
Together.” The “one mission” envisioned by the accord places temporal goals
alongside–and in effect, ahead of–eternal ones. Much of the document focuses on
“the right ordering of society” (12). The longest section, “We Contend Together,”
states that “politics, law, and culture must be secured by moral truth” (12). The
mandate they assume is cultural and temporal, not spiritual and eternal.
Therefore the catalog of issues that the document’s signers “contend together” for
is made up of religious freedom, right-to-life issues, moral education, parental
choice in education, anti-obscenity laws, human equality, a free-marker economy,
esteem for Western culture, pro-family legislation, and a responsible foreign policy.
Another section, “We Witness Together,” deals with evangelism. No attempt is
made to outline the content of the Gospel message. Indeed, since the document
already lists key elements of the Gospel as points of disagreement, consensus on
this would seem utterly impossible. Nevertheless, as if oblivious to the
insurmountable difficulty this poses, the document unequivocally calls for
evangelicals and Catholics to demonstrate “the evidence of love” toward one
another that “is an integral part of [our] Christian witness” (20).
Beyond that, no positive guidelines are given for how Catholics and evangelicals can
“witness together.” Instead, the primary concern of this entire section on
evangelism is to “condemn the practice of recruiting people from another
community for the purposes of denominational or institutionalize aggrandizement”
The document states unequivocally that our witness is not to be directed at people
already in the “Christian community.” That is, evangelicals are not supposed to
proselytize active Roman Catholics (22-23). This is labeled “sheep stealing” (22).
Signers of the document believe that such “attempt [s] to win `converts’ from one
another’s folds...undermine the Christian Mission” (20). Besides, proselytizing one
another is deemed utterly unnecessary, because “we as Evangelicals and Catholics
affirm that opportunity and means for growth in Christian discipleship are available
in our several communities” (22).
Much of the controversy regarding “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” stems
from this 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 resources for one Christian community
to proselytize among active adherents of another Christian community” (22-23).
THE FATAL FLAW
But it is another statement in the section “We Witness Together” that betrays the
document’s fundamental weakness:
There are, then, differences between us that cannot be resolved here. But
on this we are resolved: All authentic witness must be aimed at conversion
to God in Christ by the power of the Spirit. Those converted–whether
understood as having received the new birth for the first time or as having
experienced the reawakening of the new birth originally bestowed in the
sacrament of baptism–must be given full freedom and respect as they
discern and decide the community in which they will live their new life in
Christ (24, emphasis added).
The document acknowledges “a major difference in our understanding of the
relationship between baptism and the new birth in Christ. For Catholics, all who are
validly baptized are born again and are truly, however imperfectly, in communion
with Christ” (23). But how “major” is this difference? Signers of the accord
evidently didn’t feel it was anything fundamental. There are after all, “different
ways of being Christian” (22, emphasis added). The temporal, cultural, political
issues are so compelling that the Gospel must be ameliorated to whatever degree
necessary to achieve a superficial “Christian” morality.
So people who believe they are “born again” because they were baptized Catholic
“must be given full freedom and respect” to remain Catholic. That is, they should
not be approached by evangelicals and told that no amount of sacraments or good
works can make them acceptable to God.
Having declined to address the profound difference between the evangelical
message of justification by faith alone and the Roman Catholic Gospel of faith plus
works, the document here simply treats that difference as an optional matter of
It is not. Catholicism places undue stress on human works. Catholic doctrine
denies that God “justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5) without first making them
godly. Good works therefore become the ground of justification. And Scripture
says that relegates people to an eternal reward that is reckoned not of grace, but
of debt (v. 4). As thousands of former Catholics will testify, Roman Catholic
doctrine and liturgy obscure the essential truth that we re saved by grace through
faith and not by our own works (Eph. 2:8-9). It has trapped millions of Catholics
in a system of superstition and religious ritual that insulates them from the glorious
liberty of the true Gospel of Christ.
Adding works to faith as the grounds of justification is precisely the teaching Paul
condemned as “a different gospel” (see 2 Cor. 11:4; Gal. 1:6). It nullifies the
grace of God. If meritorious righteousness can be earned through the sacraments,
“then Christ died needlessly” (Gal. 2:21). “For we maintain that a man is justified
by faith apart from works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28).
Furthermore, justification by faith plus works was exactly the error that
condemned Israel: “Pursuing a law of righteousness, [they] did not arrive at the
law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by
works” (Rom. 9:31-32). “For not knowing about God’s righteousness, and
seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the
righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:3). Throughout Scripture we are taught that “a
man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus...since
by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.” (Gal. 2:16).
Yet ignoring the gravity of this defect in the Roman Catholic system, evangelical
signers of the document in effect pledge that none of their evangelistic work will
ever be aimed at guiding Catholic converts out of Roman Catholicism–with its daily
sacrifices, meritorious sacraments, confessional booths, rosary beads, fear of
purgatory, and prayers to Mary and the saints. The document insists that
“opportunity and means for growth in Christian discipleship are available” in the
Catholic Church (22). Therefore winning a Catholic to the evangelical faith is
nothing but “sheep stealing”–a sin against the body of Christ.
Having declared all active Catholics “brothers and sisters in Christ,” and having
given de facto approval to baptismal regeneration and justification by faith plus
works, the accord has no choice but to pronounce Catholic church members off-limits for evangelism.
A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION?
Signers of the document nonetheless hailed what they had done “as historic.”
Some applauded it as a major step toward healing the breach caused by the
reformation. Catholic signatories said the document had even circulated inside the
Vatican, where it was received with great enthusiasm. Christianity Today ran an
editorial welcoming the new ecumenism as a reflection of the changing pattern of
American church life. Two major agency heads from the Southern Baptist
Convention were signatories to the document. One of them wrote me to say this
accord fulfills the whole intent of the Reformation.
But not all evangelicals responded so warmly. Many see the document as
confusing, misleading. Some have said it sells out the Gospel. Missionaries taking
the Gospel to predominantly Roman Catholic nations read it as an attack on their
ministries. Evangelicals in Latin America fear that the pact will be used as a weapon
Even some Catholics have taken exception. Christians United for Reformation
(CURE) featured on their weekly radio broadcast a dialogue with a leading Catholic
apologist who agreed with CURE”s assessment: the document muddles and simply
sweeps aside the important doctrinal differences that prompted the Reformation.
CURE scrambled to produce an alternative document that would affirm Catholic-evangelical cobeliigerance on moral and political issues without validating Roman
Catholicism as authentic Christianity.
I am convinced that “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” is a step in exactly the
wrong direction. It contradicts the very truths it professes to stand for. It
expresses a wish for unity but threatens to split the evangelical community. It
claims to reject the appearance of harmony purchased at the price of truth, but it
treats precious truths thousands have died for as if they were of negligible
importance. It calls for the removal of tensions that supposedly hinder the
testimony of the Gospel, then renders the Gospel moot by suggesting that perhaps
“the sacrament of baptism” is efficacious for spiritual regeneration. It condemns
moral relativism and nihilism, yet it attacks the very foundation of absolute truth by
implying that all forms of “Christianity” are equally valid. It calls for a clearer
witness, but it denigrates evangelism among active Catholics as “sheep
stealing”–while unduly elevating the importance of social and political issues. It is,
frankly, an assault against evangelism. It suggests that “the right ordering of
society” takes precedence over discerning between true Christianity and “a
different gospel.” It sets aside personal salvation in favor of national morality. It is
nothing but the old ecumenism with moral conservatism rather than radical politics
as its real agenda.
In an age already prone to reckless faith and lacking in biblical discernment, this
accord seems fraught with potential mischief. It blurs doctrinal distinctives and
therefore inflames the very worst tendencies of modern religion. It falls lock-step
into line with our culture’s minimalist approach to truth issues. Far from signaling
“progress,” it may mark the low point of post-Reformation evangelicalism.
That may seem like a harsh judgment of a document endorsed by so many stellar
evangelicals, but quite honestly, one of the most distressing aspects of
“Evangelicals and Catholics Together” is that men of such caliber would lend their
support to an effort that camouflages the lethal errors of the Roman Catholic
system. Having studied both the document and the different rationales for signing
given by various signatories, I am convinced that “Evangelicals and Catholics
Together” is a grave mistake, and it poses profound dangers for the future of
WHY WOULD KNOWLEDGEABLE EVANGELICALS SIGN THIS ACCORD?
I wrote to the men I know personally who signed the accord and asked them to
explain their position. Most responded with very gracious letters. Virtually all who
replied explained that their signatures on the document do not necessarily indicate
unqualified support, and they admitted they have concerns about the document.
Most said they signed anyway because they wanted to express support for
evangelical-Catholic alliances against social and moral ills. Some said they hoped
the document would open the door for more dialogue on the pivotal doctrinal
I must confess that I find all such explanations unsatisfying, because both the public
perception of the accord and the language of the document itself send the signal
that evangelicals now accept Roman Catholicism as authentic Christianity. That
grants an undeserved legitimacy to Roman Catholic doctrine.
Moreover, the document confuses Christendom with the true church. It makes the
unwarranted and unbiblical assumption that every breach of unity between
professing Christians wounds the body of Christ and violates the unity Christ
prayed for. The reality is that the true body of Christ is far less inclusive than the
document implies. The document wants to include “many other Christians,
notably the Eastern Orthodox and those Protestants not commonly identified as
Evangelical.” Who could this latter group include besides theological liberals? Yet
Eastern Orthodoxy and most Protestant liberals would side with Rome in rejecting
the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. Having abandoned the true faith
for “another gospel,” these groups are not entitled to be embraced as members of
Christ’s body (Gal. 1:9). 5
The evangelical signers of the document–particularly those who have studied
Reformation theology–surely are aware that official Roman Catholic doctrine is
antithetical to the simple Gospel of grace. So why would theologically-informed
evangelical leaders sign a document like this? Here is what some of them say:
This document is not about theology or doctrine. From the outset we admit
that there are doctrinal differences that are irreconcilable and we specifically
identify many of these. This This document is about religious liberty (i.e.
the right of all Christians to share their face without interference from church
or state), evangelism and missions (e.g., not only the right but rhe
responsibility under the Great Commission of all Christians to share Christ
with all nations and all people), and the need all Christians have to
cooperate, without compromise, in addressing critical moral and social
issues, such as abortion, pornography, violence, racism, and other such
issues. In our battle for that which is good and godly, we must stand with
those who will stand at all. 6
Another signer wrote, “Why did I sign the recent statement `Evangelicals and
Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium’? I did so because
the document–though by no means perfect–presents an unusually strong
combination of basic Christian truth and timely Christian response to the modern
Another suggested, “To non-Christians and the non-believing world who know
nothing about Christianity and who may think Protestants and Catholics worship a
different god, this affirmation should be a great testimony to the Lordship of Christ
and the truth of His Word.”
And one well-respected evangelical leader wrote,
It was and is in harmony with the two-pronged approach to Rome that I
have pursued for three decades: maximizing fellowship, cooperation, and
cobelligerence with Roman Catholics on the ground, at grass roots level,
while maintaining the familiar polemic against the Roman church and system
as such. The document is not official, it is ad hoc and informal, and is
designed to lead to honest cobelligerence against sin and evil in evangelism
and community concerns.
Here are some other reasons evangelical signers give to justify their support for
the document. All of these are taken verbatim either from letters these men wrote
or papers they have circulated:
- I think the document is correct in saying that the scandal of conflict
between Christians often has overwhelmed the scandal of the cross.
- I also thought the document’s stand for life (especially in protest
against abortion) and against the “relativism, anti-intellectualism, and
nihilism” that are rampant today are exactly the stands that all
Christians should be taking.
- The document is clear about what it is not trying to do. It is not put
forth as an anticipation of church union, does not hide the fact that
real differences continue to divide Catholics and evangelicals, and does
not hide the fact that conditions outside North America are often
different from those here.
- We have differences, but on the ancient creeds and the core beliefs of
Christianity we stand together. Christianity is besieged on all sides–by
a militant nation of Islam, by pantheists who have invaded many
areas of life through the New Age Movement, and by aggressive
secularism of Western life.
- If we are to reverse the surging tides of apostasy in Western culture
and resist the advancing forces of secularism, then it is absolutely vital
that those of us who share conservative, biblically-based views stand
together, that we make common cause. Regardless of one’s
Christian tradition or even past prejudices, should we not affirm John
Paul II and Mother Teresa for their uncompromising and stirring
defense of the sanctity of human life?
- [The document states,] “All who accept Christ as Lord and Savior are
brothers and sisters in Christ.” Isn’t this “accepting Christ as Lord and
Savior” what it means to be saved?
- The issue addressed is not theology. The primary issues addressed
are missions, evangelism, societal concerns, and religious liberty.
- I believe the document represents the ultimate victory of the
There, in the words of the evangelical signers themselves, is as complete a list of
their arguments as I can assemble. To those must be added, of course, the
arguments contained in the document itself.
But all those reasons ring hollow in view of everything the agreement surrenders.
WHAT IS COMPROMISED BY THE AGREEMENT?
Notice that a common theme running through the signers’ arguments is the
protest that “this document is not about theology or doctrine.” After all,
“Evangelicals and Catholics Together” explicitly disproves any intent to seek
resolution of any doctrinal differences (24). All those who signed points to the
documents’ long list of doctrinal differences as proof that no crucial doctrine was
But the incredible naivete of that perspective is unworthy of any of the men who
attached their signatures to this document. Far from safeguarding evangelical
distinctives, the document relegated them all to the status of non-essentials. By
expressly stating, “Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ,”
the document suggests that none of the differences between Catholics and
evangelicals involve any doctrines of eternal significance.
Yet that was the whole point of the Reformation. Rome viewed the Reformers as
apostates and excommunicated them. The Reformers became convinced that
Rome’s deviation from biblical doctrine was so serious that the Papal system
represented false Christianity. Both sides understood that the doctrines at stake
were fundamental. “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” while acknowledging
that all those doctrinal differences still exist, simply assumes without discussion
without discussion that none of them represents the difference between authentic
Christianity and “a different gospel.” That assumption itself is a monumental
doctrinal shift–abandoning more than four hundred years of evangelical consensus.
So it is disingenuous to suggest that the document “is not about theology or
Timothy George contributed an editorial to the pages of Christianity Today
announcing the accord. He evidently believes the statement sufficiently safeguards
essential doctrine. He writes, “Both the formal and material principles of the
Reformation–that is, the infallibility of Holy Scripture and justification by faith–are
duly affirmed in this statement.” George wants it made clear that he is not
renouncing the Reformation: “Lest anyone be carried away by the ecumenical
euphoria of the moment, it needs to be stated clearly that the Reformation was
not a mistake.” 7
Dr. George’s expertise on the theology of the Reformation is beyond question. His
testimony that the Reformation was no mistake is most welcome in light of the
tenor of the document. But we must wonder how such an able thinker could
possibly maintain that “Evangelicals and Catholics together” affirms the formal and
material principles of the Reformation.
That language may be unfamiliar to many readers, but it is common in studies of
historical theology. As George wrote in his own excellent analysis of Reformation
theology, “Historians have frequently referred to the doctrine of sola Scriptural as
the formal principle of the reformation, as compared to the material principle of
sola fide.” 8 The formal principle has to do with the form, or the essence, of the
theological debate between Rome and the Reformers: the sufficiency of the
Scriptures alone (sola Scriptura). The material principle defined the matter in
question: whether sinners are justified by faith alone (sola fide), or by faith plus
The truth is, Timothy George’s endorsement notwithstanding, “Evangelicals and
Catholics Together” utterly compromises both the formal and the material
principles of the Reformation.
Sola Scriptura–the Formal Principle
Notice that in his Christianity Today editorial, Dr. George identifies the formal
principle of the Reformation as “the infallibility of Holy Scripture.” But George is well
aware that the real issue under debate in the Reformation was the sufficiency, not
the infallibility, of Scripture. In his 1998 book, he wrote that “Luther’s
contemporary opponents were in perfect agreement with him” on the questions of
biblical inspiration and infallibility.9 What the papists objected to was Luther’s
doctrine of sola Scriptura. In Luther’s own words, sola Scriptura means that “what
is asserted without the Scriptures or proven revelation may be held as an opinion,
but need not be believed.” 10
Catholicism flatly rejects that principle, adding a host of traditions and Church
teachings and declaring them bind on all true believer–with the threat of eternal
damnation to those who hold contradictory opinions. In Roman Catholicism, “the
Word of God” encompasses not only the Bible, but also the Apocrypha, the
Magisterium (the Church’s authority to teach and interpret divine truth), the Pope’s
ex cathedra pronouncements, and an indefinite body of church tradition, some
formalized in canon law and some not yet committed to writing. Whereas
evangelical Protestants believe the Bible is the ultimate test of all truth, Roman
Catholics believe the Church determines what is true and what is not. In effect, this
makes the Church a higher authority than Scripture.
The documents of the Second Vatican Council affirm that “it is not from the sacred
Scripture alone that the [Catholic] Church draws her certainty about everything
which has been revealed, “ but “sacred tradition [transmits] in its full purity God’s
word which was entrusted to the apostles.” 11 “Therefore both sacred tradition
and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of
devotion and reverence.”
How does “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” address the issue of biblical
authority? As George pointed out, the document expressly affirms “that Christians
are to teach and live in obedience to the divinely inspired Scriptures, which are the
infallible Word of God” (6) But the document also lists the question of the Bible’s
sufficiency as one of the disputed issues: “The sole authority of Scripture (sola
scriptura) or Scripture as authoritatively interpreted in the church” (10).
The way that statement is framed in the document implies that the difference
between evangelicals and Catholics has to do with the question of who is
authorized to interpret Scripture. It implies that evangelicals allow for individuals to
interpret the Bible according to their personal preferences, while Catholics insist on
following the hierarchy of Church authority. But that is a gross misstatement of
Evangelicals certainly believe Scripture must be correctly interpreted. That is why
they have creeds and doctrinal statements. But evangelicals believe that creeds,
decisions of church councils, all doctrine, and even the church itself must be judged
by Scripture–not vice versa. Scripture is to be accurately interpreted in its context
by comparing it to Scripture (1 Cor. 2:13; Isa. 28:9-13)–certainly not according to
anyone’s personal whims. Scripture itself is thus the sole binding rule of faith and
practice for all Christians. Protestant creeds and doctrinal statements simply
express the churches’ collective understanding of the proper interpretation of
Scripture. In no sense could the creeds or pronouncements of the churches ever
constitute an authority equal to or higher than Scripture. Scripture always takes
priority over the church in the rank of authority.
Catholics, on the other hand, believe the infallible touchstone of truth is the Church
itself. The Church not only infallibly determines the proper interpretation of
Scripture, but also supplements Scripture with additional traditions and teachings.
That combination of Church tradition plus the Church’s interpretation of Scripture is
what constitute the binding rule of faith and practice for Catholics. De facto, the
Church sets herself above Holy Scripture in rank of authority.
Therefore the real point of disagreement between evangelicals and Catholics
regarding sola Scriptura is not the question of who should interpret Scripture but
whether Scripture alone is a sufficient rule of faith and practice.
“Evangelicals and Catholics Together” not only misrepresents sola Scriptura, but it
also consigns the whole issue to the status of a secondary, non-essential point of
disagreement. In that regard, it represents a major victory for Rome and a sorry
defeat for the Reformation.
Sola fide–the Material Principle
The other great plank in the Reformers’ platform–the material principle–was
justification by faith alone. Timothy George’s contention that sola fide was “duly
affirmed in this statement” is mystifying. In the entire twenty-five page document,
not one reference to sola fide can be found anywhere! Yet this is what Martin
Luther called “the article of the standing or falling church.” In other words, Luther
believed–and the rest of the Reformers were of one accord on this–that the test of
authentic Christianity is the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Rome disagreed,
declared the doctrine a damnable heresy, and pronounced a series of anathemas
against anyone who dared to side with the Reformers.
It is surely significant that in “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” the issue of
justification–the doctrine that launched the Reformation–is not even mentioned in
the list of points of disagreement! Are the drafters of the document satisfied that
evangelicals and Catholics now agree on this issue? Indeed, where justification is
mentioned, it is given as a point of agreement: “We affirm together that we are
justified by grace through faith because of Christ” (5).
What’s wrong with that? many evangelicals will ask. So what if it leaves out the
disputed word alone? After all, the phrase, the phrase “justification by grace
through faith” is certainly biblical as far as it goes. It may not be a full discourse on
the doctrine of justification, but isn’t it really adequate? Doesn’t it seem like
theological nitpicking to insist on technical precision in an informal statement like
But it is not nitpicking to fault this statement. For five hundred years the question
of whether people are justified by faith alone has been the main point of theological
dispute between Catholics and evangelicals. Both sides have taken rather clearly
defined positions on the issue. Any document that purports to bring Catholicism
and evangelicalism into harmony must address this fundamental disagreement.
The difference is so crucial tht it cannot and should not merely be glossed over with
In fact, it does not overstate the case to say on the matter of justification the
difference between the Roman Catholic view and that of Protestant evangelicalism
is so profound as to constitute two wholly different religions. Error at this point is
damning heresy. If one view represents authentic Christianity, the other certainly
cannot. They are antithetical. There is no common ground here.
The doctrine of justification by faith has been something of a focus in my personal
study for the past few years. It rose to prominence as a major point in the so-called “lordship controversy”–a debate mostly among evangelicals about the role
of good works in the Christian life. That debate was sparked by several prominent
evangelicals who insisted that people can be saved by accepting Jesus as
Savior–even if they choose to defer obedience to His lordship indefinitely.
Justification by faith was the issue on which they staked their claim. If we are truly
justified by faith alone, they reasoned, all good works must remain optional for
Christians. I rejected that position, known as antinomianism, on biblical grounds.
But the lordship controversy launched me on a very profitable study of justification
by faith from both the biblical and the historical perspectives. As I read what the
Reformers had to say about justification, I gained a new appreciation for their
biblical thoroughness. I also began to see in a clearer light than ever before how
vitally important it is to be absolutely sound on the doctrine of justification by faith.
Luther did not overstate the case when he called justification the article by which
the church stands or falls. A right understanding of justification is the only safe
course between the Scylla of works-righteousness and the Charybdis of radical
The Reformers’ Firm Stance on Justification
The Roman Catholic Church defined its views on justification at the Council of
Trent. That Council began its work in 1545 and continued for nearly twenty years.
The doctrine of justification was high on the Council’s list of priorities. The canons
and decrees on justification were written in 1547 at the Council’s sixth session.
Trent was the Catholic Church’s answer to the Protestant Reformation. In 1517,
when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the castle church
at Wittenberg, attacking the sale of indulgences, he “cut a vein of mediaeval
Catholicism.” 13. The bleeding continued for at least three decades. The Council
of Trent was a desperate attempt to stanch the flow.
Philip Schaff described the work of Trent:
The decisions of the Council relate partly to doctrine, partly to discipline. The
former are divided again into Decrees (decreta) which contain the positive
statement of Roman dogma, and into short Canons (canones), which
condemn the dissenting views with the concluding “anathema sit” [“let him
be damned’]. The Protestant doctrines, however, are almost always stated
in exaggerated form, in which they could hardly be recognized by a
discriminating Protestant divine, or they are mixed up with real heresies,
which Protestants condemn as emphatically as the Church of Rome. 14
So rather than replying to the Reformers’ teaching, Trent often attacked straw
men of its own making. Bear that in mind as we look at some of the Council’s
pronouncements about justification. Sometimes the view they condemn is merely
a caricature of Reformation teaching.
On the other hand, many of Trent’s decrees sound quite evangelical. For example,
the Council of Trent explicitly denied that anyone can be justified by good works
apart from grace: “If anyone says that man may be justified before God by his
own works...without the grace of God through Jesus Christ–let him be anathema”
(Trent, sess. 6, canon 1). 15
The council also affirmed that “God justifies sinners by his grace, through the
redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Trent, sess.6, chap.6) and that “we are said to
be justified by faith because faith is the beginning of human salvation” (Trent, sess.
6, chap. 8). It also stated that the m