Trent or Westminster?

National | At the core of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together debate: Can the two traditions coexist?

Issue: "Focus on a family feud," Feb. 27, 1998

At the invitation of Prison Fellowship head Charles Colson, three dozen evangelical leaders crowded into a small terrace-level hotel room in Washington, D.C., early this month to debate the latest document produced by Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), an unofficial but influential Protestant-Catholic dialogue group. That six-page paper, "The Gift of Salvation," also known as ECT II (WORLD, Dec. 27, 1997/Jan. 3, 1998), released last November, reputedly marked the first time Catholic scholars publicly joined Protestant evangelicals in affirming a position on the doctrine of salvation that, according to the statement, "is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide)." ECT signers and supporters Mr. Colson, Timothy George of Samford University's Beeson Divinity School, John Woodbridge of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, and Kent Hill of Eastern Nazarene College were among those gathered on a cold rainy afternoon at the Washington Hilton to defend the document. Among those representing the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE), ECT's strongest organized opposition, were R.C. Sproul of Knox Seminary, John Armstrong of Reformation and Revival Ministries, Editor Michael Horton of modernReformation, and broadcaster John Ankerberg. ACE emphasizes maintaining the central tenets of the Protestant Reformation to counter what it sees as growing compromise, confusion, and even heresy among evangelicals. Timothy George stood facing the group and calmly defended ECT II as "a good statement on justification by faith alone." A "renaissance" in Catholic theology has been underway for the past two or three decades, he said, and with it movement toward a Reformation understanding of some issues. "Reformation does not happen in one fell swoop," Mr. George said, as he suggested that Protestants should give Catholics more time: "I believe in progressive or incremental reformation." R.C. Sproul, who had been staring out the windows as wind and rain pummeled the garden outside, shifted sideways in his seat to face other participants. He passionately argued that the Catholics who signed ECT II do not see justification by faith in the Reformation sense: "The Catholic confessions haven't changed. The Council of Trent is still there." (Sixteenth-century Trent reasserted Catholic doctrines and traditionalism.) Michael Horton, stressing that justification by faith alone is the core of the gospel, put it bluntly: ECT II "sold us out." Mr. Horton noted that Catholics attach "infusion" to the meaning of justification, while the Reformed position is "imputation." (In traditional Catholic understanding, when God justifies us we become meritorious ourselves; the Reformers stated that we are accepted as righteous in God's sight only because of the righteousness of Christ.) Mr. George said that ECT II lists "historic uses" of words among matters yet to be resolved, but Mr. Sproul questioned the wisdom of an agreement when basic issues remain up in the air. Eastern Nazarene's Kent Hill responded, "We can't have the process held hostage by insisting on minute points that might disrupt evangelical unity." Ron Sider agreed: "I am uneasy about emphasizing our differences with Catholics when there are differences between Pentecostal, Reformed, and other evangelical traditions." The meeting ended on a sour note and a prayer. Participants had sat intermingled and somewhat relaxed with each other in short rows on both sides of a center aisle. But before pronouncing the benediction, Robert Seiple of World Vision told the group, "I met Jesus Christ before I met a theologian, and I thank God for that." Mr. Sproul bent over in his seat, shaking his head. Afterward, Mr. George and Mr. Woodbridge huddled with Mr. Sproul and Mr. Horton over a cordial dinner. Together they reviewed a draft of an ACE open letter to pastors titled "The Battle for the Gospel," a response to ECT II. The document, somewhat toned down as a result of ECT-ACE conversations, was scheduled for publication as a news release Feb. 25. ACE leaders declined to discuss its contents beforehand. One of those who remained silent during the meeting in the hotel room was ACE administrator Diana Frazier. She was sitting on the results of an informal survey taken a couple of days earlier at the National Religious Broadcasters convention up the street. People, presumably evangelicals, passing by a broadcast set in the exhibit hall were handed a sheet of paper containing a number of statements with "agree" and "disagree" choices. One of the statements was, "Justification is the process by which I am made holy by God's spirit." Mrs. Frazier said 24 of 26 respondents (92 percent) indicated agreement. That statement, she said, reflects the Catholic position-that we are infused with holiness rather than having Christ's holiness imputed to us and received by faith alone. Maybe that survey result reflected a lack of close reading by conventioneers in a rush. It also may be that ACE, which argues that basic theological teaching is being neglected, was dealt an ace.

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Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman


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