Thursday, April 1, 2010

"Evangelicals and Catholics Together"

I finally got around to reading the document "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" from back in 1992.

It's good reading and a refreshing attempt at ecumenism between Evangelical and Catholic Christians. I liked a lot of what was said. I kind of wonder if maybe the ancient creeds could've been searched more for agreeable items that could be put forth in a statement of faith (say, the Nicene Creed, sans (at least) filique and confiteor. I also (and considering the group that signed, I wouldn't think that this would be hard) might've appreciated an agreement not to question each others' fidelity to Christ or even to the Gospel, over different interpretations of sola gratia or over acceptance/rejection of sola fide. But maybe that's just me.

And okay. I'd be lying if I said that the language on baptism doesn't sound a little wishy-washy to me:
In the context of evangelization and "reevangelization," we encounter 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. That baptismal grace is to be continuingly reawakened and revivified through conversion. For most Evangelicals, but not all, the experience of conversion is to be followed by baptism as a sign of new birth. For Catholics, all the baptized are already members of the church, however dormant their faith and life; for many Evangelicals, the new birth requires baptismal initiation into the community of the born again. These differing beliefs about the relationship between baptism, new birth, and membership in the church should be honestly presented to the Christian who has undergone conversion. But again, his decision regarding communal allegiance and participation must be assiduously respected.
I realize this is a difficult statement to compose, what with the notions of whether baptism regenerates and whether it is what makes one a Christian 'officially,' but I have two concerns. One concern is whether the Catholics should really have agreed to such language, since it almost seems to imply that it's okay for non-Catholic churches to go around teaching that baptism doesn't regenerate--even though it's treated as a near-essential for salvation in Catholicism.* That sounds...not quite spiritually responsible. (Again, maybe that's just me.) But the thing I don't think is just me is that the language sounds a little "true for you but not for me." Example: "for Catholics, the baptized are X" but essentially also maintaining that "for Evangelicals, pre-baptized are also X." Just...sounds a little relativistic. To put it bluntly, it sounds like they stopped just short of saying "for some Evangelicals, baptism is not regenerating," and also "for other Evangelicals and Catholics, baptism is regenerating." While it is within the realm of theological possibility, the only reasonable solution I can see to the conflict seems to mean that baptism regenerates depending on whether or not we believe it does, which seems to get us absolutely nowhere on questions like infant baptism. I'm sort of in a mode of self-doubt on these points, however, because most if not all of the people who signed this thing are very relativism-averse. Kreeft, Mouw, and Glendon** to give brief examples.

I realize the thrust of this has been kind of critical, so I want to end by discussing what I feel the declaration did really well.

On the brighter side, this document does at least agree on the Apostles' Creed, which is a good starting point in addressing issues like what Christians agree on, or ought to agree on. (Some related discussion, in the mode of thoughts about heresy, can be found at the You Can't Mean That! post from this last week's Christian Carnival.)

It discussed Biblical mandates that would seem to tell us to be charitable to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and it discussed perhaps even more gravely that the consequence of ignoring said mandates is a compromise to our witness and a comfort to the dark forces, natural and supernatural, that would suppress Christianity:
While we are gratefully aware of ongoing efforts to address tensions among these communities, the shameful reality is that, in many places around the world, the scandal of conflict between Christians obscures the scandal of the cross, thus crippling the one mission of the one Christ. [...and later:] As Evangelicals and Catholics, we dare not by needless and loveless conflict between ourselves give aid and comfort to the enemies of the cause of Christ. The love of Christ compels us and we are therefore resolved to avoid such conflict between our communities and, where such conflict exists, to do what we can to reduce and eliminate it. Beyond that, we are called and we are therefore resolved to explore patterns of working and witnessing together in order to advance the one mission of Christ.
The document concludes optimistically, with a note that is, if a little idealistic, ultimately a pragmatic realization that in the end this isn't "evangelicals vs. Catholics," it is (if a versus of any kind) "Christians vs. 'the world'":
Nearly two thousand years after it began, and nearly five hundred years after the divisions of the Reformation era, the Christian mission to the world is vibrantly alive and assertive. We do not know, we cannot know, what the Lord of history has in store for the Third Millennium. It may be the springtime of world missions and great Christian expansion. It may be the way of the cross marked by persecution and apparent marginalization. In different places and times, it will likely be both. Or it may be that Our Lord will return tomorrow. We do know that his promise is sure, that we are enlisted for the duration, and that we are in this together. We do know that we must affirm and hope and search and contend and witness together, for we belong not to ourselves but to him who has purchased us by the blood of the cross. We do know that this is a time of opportunity-and, if of opportunity, then of responsibility-for Evangelicals and Catholics to be Christians together in a way that helps prepare the world for the coming of him to whom belongs the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.
If anyone else has reactions, who's read the whole thing or even just on the immediate context/commentary I gave, please do tell! I really do want people to join on the conversation: I especially want to know if people think I'm off track about the baptism language, because I kind of suspect that I am, but any thoughts about the document or about any of my other particular thoughts on it are also welcome!

A blessed Holy Thursday to you all!


* Footnote: In the sense that if you know you ought to be baptized and aren't working towards it, you're kind of hosed.
** If you don't know who Peter Kreeft and Richard Mouw are, they are respectively a Catholic philosopher and Christian apologist at Boston College, and the president of Fuller Theological Seminary. Not exactly relativists. Mary Ann Glendon, is the woman who turned down the University of Notre Dame's Laetare Medal because of the justification given for President Barack Obama in all his pro-choice-ness being given a platform to speak at the same graduation ceremony and receiving an honorary law degree there. (Her presence, and her own opportunity to speak, were part of the University's justification.)


Mervin Bunter said...

It's refreshing to find someone else who liked the ECT documents. There are a lot of people writing online who seem very unhappy with ECT, claiming that the Evangelicals "gave up" too much ground to the Catholics. (sigh)

Anyway, about the baptism section you mentioned above... I took it a different way. I don't think that paragraph is saying, "If you're Catholic, baptism regenerates you, but if you're not, it doesn't." I think it's just highlighting one of the remaining differences between Evangelicals and Catholics. It's saying that even though we agree on justification by grace through faith, we still disagree on whether or not baptism is a MEANS of grace through faith, or simply a SIGN of grace through faith.

Obviously most Evangelicals believe that saving faith only comes when a person says to himself, "Zounds! I'm a sinner. But Jesus died for me. I'm going to put my faith in Jesus to save me from my sins." Catholics believe that, through baptism, the faith of the Church can stand in for an infant's faith until such time that the child has a "Zounds!" moment of his own (typically called "Confirmation").

Thank you for this blog! I only found it today because I have a Google Alert to tell me whenever someone posts about "Evangelicals and Catholics Together". I'll have to make a point of reading here more often.

Happy Easter! He is risen, He is risen indeed!

Dan Lower / KKairos said...

While I still have some concerns about the phrasing of the document (since, as I said, I sincerely doubt such relativism-averse folks as Mouw, Kreeft and Glendon would sign the document if it were an actual attempt at baptism-related relativism) I applaud its attempt and hope it will spark deeper theological dialogue which may lead us in the future to greater doctrinal unity, which in turn would hopefully lead to greater organizational unity. In any case I applaud its pointing out of the scandal of Christians who interact with each other in a way less than that demanded by the Love of God.

Also, Amen, He is risen! He is risen indeed! Happy Easter to you too, and I hope you do decide to read here more often, though I suppose I'm kind of biased.

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