From the tyrranny of the Bysshop of Rome and al hys detestable enormities … good lord, deliver us.” Not a particularly Christian sentiment, one might think! But then it dates from long ago, as the quaint spelling indicates: the Litany of the English Prayer Book of 1552. The full petition contains references to both “tyranny” and “heresy,” which reminds us that at the Reformation English nationalism went hand in hand with the recovery of biblical truth. Then for four long centuries there was virtually no rapproachement, only hostility and polemic.

What, then, should the attitude of evangelicals toward the church of Rome be now, since the astonishing aggiornamento that began with Vatican II, when the call was sounded to “let ‘the word of the Lord run and be glorified’ (2 Th. 3:1), and let the treasure of revelation entrusted to the Church increasingly fill the hearts of men” (Dei Verbum 26)? I have often asked myself this question and have always found it difficult to answer.

For what exactly is the church of Rome that one can relate to it? The old illusion of a monotholic structure has been shattered. Today it appears almost as pluriform as Protestantism. What does it believe and teach? Has it really changed? Or is its old boast of changelessness and irreformability true?

Sometimes still our Protestant consciences are scandalized, as when in his “Credo of the People” Pope Paul described the redeemed as being “gathered round Jesus and Mary” in heaven. At other times a Catholic theologian will make a statement so Bible-based and Christ-centered that one wants to shout three cheers, give him a hug, and call him an evangelical.

But then another Catholic leader comes along with a counter-statement that takes us right back to the old theological liberalism we thought we were growing out of. Thus in his monumental On Being a Christian Hans Küng can assert that “the Scriptures are not themselves divine revelation; they are merely the human testimonies of divine revelation.…” (Haven’t you heard that before somewhere?) Again, the Bible neither is God’s word nor even contains it, he writes, but “the Bible becomes God’s word … for any one who submits trustfully … to its testimony and so to the God revealed in it and to Jesus Christ.” (Is Hans Rung also among the Barthians?)

In this confused condition of the Roman church, we must go on courteously pressing our evangelical questions. Reunion with Rome is inconceivable without the reformation of Rome. I recently signed an open letter (emanating from Latimer House, Oxford, and the Church of England Evangelical Council) that is addressed to the archbishops and bishops of the Anglican communion and that concerns relations between Anglican churches and the Roman and Orthodox churches. It expresses great joy over our common concern “for real and tested theological agreement as a pre-condition of closer churchly relationships.” But it goes on to ask searching questions, e.g., whether the non-Reformed churches are yet ready “to test all their traditions … by Holy Scripture, as we shall seek to test ours, in order to amend what the Bible will not justify,” and whether “justification” is indeed “God’s free gift of acceptance, bestowed on sinners by grace alone, in and through Christ, and received by God-given faith alone.” For if Vatican II was right that there is “a hierarchy of truths,” then the doctrines of scriptural supremacy and free justification have preeminence among them.

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This leads me to say that I fear that Archbishop Donald Coggan’s call for Roman-Anglican intercommunion (which the Pope rebuffed) was premature. I know that there are some Roman Catholic communion services in which absolutely nothing is said or done that would offend evangelical consciences. I know too (and rejoice) that the so-called “Agreed Statement on the Eucharist” (though it has no authority in either church) unambiguously asserts that Christ’s death on the cross was “the one, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world,” and that “there can be no repetition of or addition to what was then accomplished once for all by Christ.” Again, I know that the word “transubstantiation” is not in the text of the agreement. Yet it is still there in a footnote as the traditional word Catholics use to indicate the “change in the inner reality of the elements” that is thought to take place. So, speaking personally, I do not think I could bring myself to participate in a Roman Catholic mass, even if it were authorized, until the doctrinal stance of the church has been officially reformed.

Instead, the right way forward seems to be that of personal friendship, joint Bible study, and candid dialogue with Roman Catholics. For this reason I was delighted to be a part of the Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission, which took place in Venice in April. The eight-member Roman Catholic team had been appointed by the Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity, while the eight evangelicals were an ad hoc international group, including Bishop Donald Cameron of Sydney, Australia, Professor Peter Beyerhaus of Tübingen, and Dr. David Hubbard, the president of Fuller seminary. We discussed the meaning of the words “mission,” “salvation,” and “conversion” and the possibilities of a common witness. Although we came together with some fears and suspicions of one another, soon the caricatures were discarded, and through patient listening we came to know, respect, and love one another in the Holy Spirit. We spent one evening sharing our personal experiences of Jesus Christ and our testimonies to him, and we rejoiced to recognize God’s grace in one another.

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For myself, I was constantly astonished to hear a Roman Catholic brother (or sister, for Joan Chatfield of the Maryknoll Sisters was a member of the Roman Catholic team) cite a biblical text in a discussion, quoting chapter and verse from memory. Nothing surprised me more, I think, than our degree of consensus on baptism. I have always supposed that Roman Catholics had a mechanical view of baptism and regarded all baptized people as ipso facto regenerate Christians. But no! They were in full agreement with this statement: “Baptism must never be isolated, either in theology or in practice, from the context of conversion. It belongs essentially to the whole process of repentance, faith, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and membership of the covenant community, the church. None of us accepts a mechanical view of baptism.”

We hope to meet again and to tackle in greater depth some of the main issues that still divide us. I find myself hoping and praying that evangelicals worldwide will take more initiatives to develop friendly conversations with Roman Catholics based on common Bible study. It would be tragic indeed if God’s purpose of reformation were frustrated by our evangelical stand-offishness. One of the Nottingham Congress’s final “Declarations of Intent” concerned Roman Catholics and said: “We renew our commitment to seek with them the truth of God and the unity he wills, in obedience to our common Lord on the basis of Scripture.”

John R. W. Stott (1921 – 2011) is known worldwide as a preacher, evangelist, author, and theologian. For 66 years he served All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London, England, where he pioneered effective urban evangelistic and pastoral ministry. During these years he authored more than 50 books, and served as one of the original Contributing Editors for Christianity Today. Stott had a global vision and built strong relationships with church leaders outside the West in the Majority World. A hallmark of Stott's ministry was his vision for expository biblical preaching that addresses the hearts and minds of contemporary men and women. In 1969 he founded a trust that eventually became Langham Partnership International (, a ministry that continues his vision of partnership with the Majority World Church. Stott was honored by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."

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