The Future of Christian Learning: An Evangelical and Catholic Dialogue

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Following centuries of controversy, evangelicals and Catholics are learning the art of dialogue based on mutual respect. The evaluation of the dialogue between Catholics and evangelicals, which started in the USA in the early Nineties, is an interesting case-study in the present scenario and provides the opportunity for an evangelical reflection on Roman Catholicism. In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council and the Berlin Congress on mission , a new season in ecumenical relationships was inaugurated between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics on a world-wide scale.


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Following centuries of controversy, Evangelicals and Catholics are learning the art of dialogue based on mutual respect. The new attitude to dialogue would seem to suit most Evangelicals though the most frequently heard voices come from the two opposite extremes of this broad consensus. While some are willing to go beyond mere dialogue to explore closer forms of unity with Catholics, others are reluctant to accept any form of dialogue because they deem that, in ecumenical jargon, dialogue is never mere dialogue but is based on the premise of a unity which already exists though it may be somewhat imperfect.

That They May Be One: Evangelicals and Catholics in Dialogue

The issue of Christian unity is at the centre of the debate while dialogue goes on at different levels. On the whole, the situation is extremely fluid and is an example of the wide variety of positions within Evangelicalism which can be seen in other areas as well. For Evangelicals, the issue of Roman Catholicism is closely linked to the issue of evangelical unity. The two issues are interwoven because the way they face the former calls into question the way they consider and experience the latter.

The evaluation of the dialoguing process which started in the USA in the early Nineties is an interesting case-study in the present scenario and provides the opportunity for an evangelical reflection on Roman Catholicism. The architects of the whole project make it clear that its immediate background is to be sought in the American socio-political scene of the Eighties. The range of battle fields was extremely diverse and included thorny issues like abortion, pornography, homosexuality, euthanasia, the nature and integrity of the family, education value-systems and basic social patterns.

In the midst of this dramatic confrontation in American society, and perhaps because of it and through it, some Evangelicals and Catholics found themselves fighting on the same side.

Account Options

ECT is of theological interest in that this kind of coalition is said to have a theological basis. ECT drafters and supporters appeal not only to a relatively similar evaluation of current social trends and to the shared core values advocated by some politically conservative Evangelicals and Catholics.

In other words, according to ECT, contending in society is based on affirming gospel truth and is aimed at witnessing to the world. This basic theological core is the real centre around which ECT revolves, most particularly as far as its Evangelical signatories are concerned. For Evangelicals , however, this ecumenical readiness has not been a feature of their history and practice, especially in relation to Catholics.

According to ECT, these matters are not to be avoided or downplayed but fully debated and thoroughly researched. As to its significance for the present state and future development of Evangelical-Catholic theological debate, ECT is concerned with the legitimacy of the dialogue to be pursued rather than with its theological profile. Although sundry ecumenically-minded Evangelicals have accepted ECT quite positively, the release of the statement has produced much bewilderment and disarray especially in Reformed Evangelical circles.

In other words, the mere act of subscribing a declaration is no indication of a genuinely recovered unity if each party attributes substantially different nuances to the agreed text. On the whole, then, ECT has stimulated much discussion and has provided an occasion for Evangelicals to reflect afresh on the issue of Roman Catholicism and on the wider stance of Evangelicalism in the present-day ecumenical scene. In the intention of the drafters, the ECT document was conceived as an initial step in the deeping of a mutual commitment to dialogue between its Evangelical and Catholic contributors.

The negative appraisal of some Evangelicals on the main tenets of the statement apparently strengthened the conviction that there was a need for further conversations, especially on the weaker, problematic areas which had come under strong criticism. Further reflection ought to be aimed at a fuller exploration of the theological connotations and a more adequate articulation of this fundamental thrust of ECT.

As has already been suggested in the section on ECT, the real gain of the whole ecumenical process which resulted in ECT according to its supporters was considered by some Evangelical critics to be its fatal flaw.

The Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission, - A Report

Expressing a trenchant comment often repeated in Evangelical reactions to ECT, Sproul asks whether Evangelicals have the right to root an alleged confessional unity apart from, besides or beyond an unambiguous agreement on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It is clear that both assumptions are not feasible and this omission can only be explained in terms of ecumenical diplomacy. In light of this opinion shared by many Evangelical critics of ECT, Christian unity cannot be attained at the expense of the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone because without this doctrine there is no evangelically interpreted Christian gospel.

Taking these reservations seriously into account, ECT drafters eventually decided to engage in the debate precisely over the crucial issue of sola fide. Given this background, justification by faith comes to the fore as the obvious doctrine on which dialogue must concentrate if it is to go beyond socio-political concerns. Reflecting on the ecumenical ethos of the whole initiative, it can be argued that the sort of pragmatic ecumenism resulting in ECT seems to have also operated in GOS with a certain measure of consistency.

Apparently, the vaguely protestant outlook of the statement is moderated by the eloquent underestimation of the concept of imputation.

Why Be Catholic and Not Just Christian?

As it might be expected, in spite of the good wishes of the promoters, GOS is facing nontheless the negative responses of the same strands of the Evangelical movement which reacted negatively to ECT. Of course, this criticism is mainly addressed at Evangelical participants who have presented the common declaration in a much more positive way. As for Catholic signatories, their unwillingness to embrace sola fide wholeheartedly is thought of as being perfectly legitimate from their point of view.

The question of how to approach Roman Catholicism is another area which has not seen any significant development. The latter can subsume the former, provided that it renounces its sharpness, while the former cannot blunt itself to be a part of the latter, lest it lose its distinct adherence to the exclusivenness of the gospel. The acknowledgement of this basic contrast between the respective doctrinal systems should inform all theological discussions with Roman Catholics.

If this is the case, GOS achieves far less than is claimed by its proponents. Furthermore, because of its basic methodological and theological weakness, as a model for ecumenical dialogue with Catholics it is bound to be ambiguous and, in the end, unfruitful. The kind of dialogue Evangelicals should aspire to needs to be more historically conscious, theologically careful and ecumenically alert than their contributions to both ECT or GOS have been.

The question of how to deal with Roman Catholics can be answered only after one has tackled what does it mean to be an Evangelical. Differences in the area of ecumenism generally reflect divergences in understanding of what is constitutive for the evangelical faith. It should not be surprising therefore that after having ventured in conversations with Catholics and received some negative reactions from within the movement, the Evangelical promoters and their critics have come back to the issue of evangelical doctrinal identity, and inevitably so.

If GOS pointed the way to a possible convergence between Evangelicals and Catholics on justification which was criticised by some Evangelicals, GJC spells out the basic and shared evangelical understanding of the same doctrine. The paramount desire is to stress the forensic view of justification and this is achieved by the insertion in the text of a list of synonymous verbs or nouns when the meaning of justification is sketched out. All the semantic tree of the forensic language of justification is employed to focus on the declarative dimension of the act of justification.

Of course, though unmentioned, the distinct protestant perspective on justification with its anti-Roman Catholic overtone is clearly in the background of such statements. It is too early to evaluate the reception that GJC will receive in Evangelical circles, in particular whether or not it will fuction as an adequate basis for drawing together Evangelicals who have different ecumenical sensitivities. It is certainly true that the only hope for Evangelicals to strive for unity is to appreciate the core of their faith. In the light of internal disputes over ecumenical issues, the message of GJC seems to be: back to square one, back to the evangel.

The rationale behind such a procedure seems to imply that the act of affirming something is only one side of the task related to the spelling out of the evangelical doctrinal identity. The other unavoidable aspect has to do with denying what is perceived as being contrary to what is positively affirmed.

The gospel can be witnessed to propositionally by way of positive assertions and negative derivations. In contemporary history of confessional declarations, this pattern has noble precedents in the Barmen Declaration and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy The model reflects the evangelical logic of theologizing, in which affirming something implies negating what is not in line with what has been affirmed. This procedure is very far from the ecumenical or catholic!

Moreover, as will indicated later, the Catholic epistemological framework is characterised by a comprehensive et-et both-and pattern which enables it to hold together things which are different. The hope is that the content, the pattern and the ethos of GJC will prove to be an useful reference point for future evangelical endeavors in the ecumenical scene.

The ECT process, which has culminated thus far in GJC, indicates that Evangelicals, if they need to refine their interpretative categories in dealing with Roman Catholicism and to reassess their stance towards it, also need to reflect on their own identity. What is urgent then is an appreciation of what is fundamentally at stake between Evangelicalism and Catholicism as systems of thought, beyond mere polemical attitudes, historically entrenched suspicions, psychological bitterness or theological caricatures.


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Although there is considerable diversity in its forms and expressions, Roman Catholicism is also a basically unitary reality because its underlying tenets hold together a magnificient cathedral of thought and life. While the thomistic motif of nature and grace is the basic feature of its worldview, the Roman Church, considered as the continuation of the incarnation of Christ, is its institutional centre. It is vital to bear in mind the fact that Catholicism is a multifaceted system where worldview and institution coinhere and foster its vision.

Agreed statements & reports

If this is forgotten, it is easy to misrepresent its essence, goals and means. Any analysis of Roman Catholicism which does not take into account this systemic approach will easily fall prey to a superficial and fragmented understanding. Because it coordinates nature and grace without a tragic doctrine of sin, the Catholic system is characterised by an attitude of overall openness.

It is inherently dynamic and comprehensive, capable of embracing doctrines, ideas and practices that in the Evangelical tradition are thought of as being mutually exclusive. By way of its inclusive et-et both-and epistemology, in a Catholic system two apparently contradicting elements can be reconciled into a synthesis which entails both and which safeguards the institutional unity. Roman Catholic truth. In this respect, what is perceived as being important is the integration of the part into the catholic whole by way of relating what is newly affirmed with the already existing body of truths.

The essential criterion is not that of Evangelical purity or Christian authenticity but that of a progressive inclusion, that is the insertion of the particular into a broader perspective which eliminates its specificity by dissolving it in the service of universality. Logos 8. Courses What is Logos Mobile Ed?

Shop New Products Browse All. Shop Courses Browse All Topics. Noll , James Turner. Format: Digital. Publisher: Brazos. ISBN: Be the first to rate this. Overview Evangelicals and Roman Catholics have been responsible for the establishment of many colleges and universities in America, but they have historically taken markedly different approaches to education and viewed one another's efforts with some suspicion. Key Features Divided into essays and responses Provides valuable appraisals of both Catholic and Evangelical scholastic traditions Includes introduction and index.

Praise for the Print Edition Professors Mark Noll and James Turner offer in this small book an illuminating dialogue on the nature of Christian education as well as what and how evangelicals and Catholics may learn from each other. The editor, Thomas Albert Howard, provides an outstanding review of the issues at stake and the importance of the Noll-Turner dialogue.

The authors suggest a bold and ambitious vision, one that embodies what should be an uncontroversial premise: scholarship and teaching at a Christian institution of higher learning ought to take seriously the philosophical tapestry of ideas, principles, and beliefs on which the Christian faith rests and from which it offers an account of what is good, true, and beautiful.