The issue, he says, is not recognition of the Bible as the infallible revelation from God for our salvation.
True dialogue with evangelicals begins only when I try to understand them as they understand themselves. Then they can recognize themselves in my description of their viewpoints; to do otherwise is to bear false witness against my Christian neighbors. Only then do I have the right to evaluate their convictions with criteria from my Roman Catholic tradition. I must ask myself, “Do I recognize in these Christians the biblical faith of all ages as I believe that faith to be? What do we affirm in each other of that common faith gift?”
In my attempt to understand evangelicals, I must compare ideals with ideals, practices with practices. I do not, for example, compare evangelical practices with my own Roman Catholic ideals. Neither do I limit my analysis to evangelicals’ statements about themselves. I include their total life, individual and corporate, as well as the historical, intellectual, social, political, even economic, assumptions that undergird that total life. Don’t we still tend to evaluate each other too much as abstractions, even as theological systems? Perhaps we prefer to do so because we are less awkward and more comfortable with these far less-complicated exercises.
Some Historical Reasons For Estrangement
U.S. immigration and church-growth patterns in the nineteenth century created a Roman Catholic defensiveness in a nation where Protestantism as a whole was the unofficially established religion. The ethos was overwhelmingly evangelical Protestant, and their churches increased by means of very indigenous and intentional evangelism. Roman Catholics were among those to be converted. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic church here grew almost exclusively by the millions of immigrants and their prolific cradle offspring. Protection of the faithful from slippage into evangelical Protestantism and the preservation of unity among those quarreling folk of such different ethnic backgrounds became a Catholic pastoral necessity.
Furthermore, most Catholics settled in urban areas (except for pockets in the Midwest, Louisiana, and the Hispanic-Indian Southwest). Only a small Catholic minority existed in the rural South and on the expanding frontiers. This proportion roughly continues today in those areas where clearly identifiable evangelicals dominate.
Moreover, during the earlier decades of this century, Roman Catholics were absorbed with their own peculiar (and earlier) modernist crisis. They were almost totally unaware of the similar struggles in Protestant circles. Catholics knew practically nothing about the specifically American intra-Protestant battle for the Bible, the social gospel debate, or the struggle for power in such places of influence as seminaries, periodicals, and publishing houses. Even now, most Roman Catholics are unaware of that debate and how it still shapes the present intra-Protestant dynamic.
Even as recently as the 1960s, evangelicals were on the defensive, low-profiled, and publicly overshadowed by the second decade of the National Council of Churches/World Council of Churches, and by the Second Vatican Council. American churches were suddenly being forced to respond to new or rediscovered social issues, and the evangelicals seemed “out of it.”
As the Roman Catholics officially stepped into the national and world ecumenical arena in the 1960s, they found only mainline Protestants, Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox. Evangelicals were not interested. In fact, they were not even present. Most were “anti-ecumenical.” Some judged Protestant ecumenism to have reached a nadir in the very dialogue of Protestant churches with Roman Catholics. Most Roman Catholic leaders, however, welcomed this clear distinction. They preferred dialogue and cooperation with mainline Protestants, but not with evangelicals because of the latter’s “anti-Roman” stance and aggressive proselytism among vulnerable Catholic flocks.
In the late 1970s, therefore, American Roman Catholics were suddenly caught off guard by, in Carl Henry’s phrase, evangelicals “coming out of the closet.” Evangelicals did not appear to be gasping their last breath or just “catching up to where all the rest of us Christians are—or were.” Roman Catholics suddenly had to ask themselves: “Who are these evangelicals?” To their surprise they found some evangelicals who were even wilting to meet with them. And to their dismay, evangelicals were offering conflicting answers to the question of who they were.
What Are The Images?
Catholics soon discovered that “evangelical” covered a broad spectrum. At the same time, they could recognize an overall evangelical identity. They do this both positively and negatively, differing only in what they stress.
Evangelicals uniformly have a serious devotional commitment to the Bible, and they jealously guard its unique character as God’s revealed word. But too frequently they quarrel among themselves about interpretations and tend to subdivide, usually by aligning themselves around super-preachers or national mass-media evangelists.
Evangelicals are respected for their personal commitment to Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior. Too often, however, they do not recognize the same experienced commitment when it is expressed differently in those who do not call themselves evangelicals. This appears as a not-so-subtle form of “self-righteousness in the name of God’s righteousness.” It prompts criticisms that evangelicals seem more judgmental about other Christians than about themselves.
Evangelicals display a serious personal and communal commitment to direct evangelism at home and abroad. But they often act as if most other Christians were nonbelievers. Roman Catholics, with so many Hispanics among them today, often experience a manipulative hard sell. As one Catholic puts it: “It seems their evangelizing style is works over grace.”
While evangelicals exhibit a vigorous variety of charitable works, they avoid many critical social, political, and economic issues that demand Christian response. When they do choose to involve themselves directly in such issues (as in Moral Majority, Christian broadcasting, etc.), they are too blunt and clumsy in their approach to others, Christian or otherwise, who hold differing prudential judgments.
Finally, the evangelical community appears to be formed around common foes (organizations, causes); it gains its identity more by what evangelicals are against than by what they are for.
Remember: the above descriptions—right or wrong in their stresses—are those offered by many Roman Catholics with whom I have spoken over the last five years.
More Careful Observations
Those of us Roman Catholics who are trying to engage in dialogue with evangelical Christian brothers and sisters hope to be more careful and nuanced. We are finding, for example, that although one can point to historical, sociological, and theological lines that help discern an identifiable community called “American conservative evangelicalism,” the label loses much of its discriminating power unless one is also aware of the subgroups that form that coalition.
What a wide variety of traditions! They come from within the mainline churches (Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist); the Reformation churches, with their strict interpretation of their confessions (Missouri Synod Lutherans, Christian Reformed); the “peace” churches (Brethren, Mennonite, Friends); the more conservative wing of the Restoration movement (Campbellites) and of the “holiness” tradition (Wesleyan Methodist); the fundamentalist groups, which now include those who gather around radio or television preachers; most black churches; adherents of parachurch groups (the majority of U.S. Protestant mission organizations, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Campus Crusade for Christ, Navigators, and so on).
No wonder it is difficult to reach a description in which all of the above would recognize themselves! I realize that many evangelicals still use the 1974 Lausanne Covenant as their rallying point. Yet as a Roman Catholic I can easily subscribe to the substance, and much more, of that “confession.” I recognize so much of my 1974 self in that covenant.
And since many evangelicals now regard former foes as common allies, their present coalition may be more fragile than first-view appearances would indicate. New configurations are looming. I expect new alignments not only among many evangelicals, but also among them and many Roman Catholics. The convergences in understanding and incipient common witness that may form these new alignments are the following:
• Biblical doctrines about, for example, God’s works of grace outside the Christian community, (proverbial Wisdom literature, and so on), or among those who do not explicitly accept the explicit claims of faith in Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior; Christian action in transforming society, as an essential part of evangelization; and justification by faith as it relates to the above two.
• The principles and applications of Christian social ethics, especially in a pluralistic society with its tradition of civil liberties.
• The core of the charismatic movement, and other searches for disciplined spirituality, including liturgical forms.
• Direct evangelism among the un- or dechurched, and the rejection of proselytism (in the pejorative sense) among other Christians.
More Fundamental Issues
At an even deeper level, there are two issues to consider. The first is the authority of the Bible. The issue is not the recognition of the Bible as the infallible revelation from God for our salvation (the Second Vatican Council is most insistent on that!), but rather the traditions used by both Roman Catholics and evangelicals in interpreting the Bible.
At issue are “low” and “high” views of creation, the relation between nature and grace, general and special revelation, justification and sanctification, salvation outside the historical proclamation of the gospel or beyond the frontiers of the church. The ways these views are often presented are not so clearly drawn from the Bible. Rightly or wrongly, they are convictions influenced by prevailing historical pressures, philosophical currents, intra-Christian debate and confrontation (seldom by true dialogue). However, what does not help the discussion is the disparity between most Roman Catholics and most American evangelicals over the “sense of history,” and the relation of faith to culture, culture to faith.
The second fundamental issue, I propose, is the church in all its biblical images (e.g., body, herald, servant, community of disciples, institution). In one sense, surely, we have a common profession of faith in the unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of the church. This much is already formulated in the ancient creeds and has graced all expressions of the church yesterday, today, and, we trust, until the end of time.
But how much do we all consider, for example, the present divisions among Christians as wounding the holiness and catholicity of Christ’s church? What is the active authority in and of the church that is truly apostolic? What is the church function of parachurch groups. In what rests the biblical right to divide Christian communities? What is the faith of the church that does justice?
It is mission that keeps these two fundamental issues—the Bible of the church and the church of the Bible—in proper focus. The fulcrum or vital center around which all other revealed mysteries are grouping themselves, both for former and for new coalitions, is mission. It is what God in Christ has promised to do, and is doing, in the midst of people in this world, through his people.
If evangelical and Roman Catholic Christians can be more possessed by that vision and more deeply committed to its fulfillment, then one can hope past estrangements will fade and future common witness to God’s one mission will emerge.
Mission means sending. Surely we who have been baptized into the one body have been sent to be neither enemies nor strangers to one another, but to be brothers and sisters in Christ on behalf of all.
Thomas F. Stransky, a Paulist priest, was from 1960–70 on the staff of the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. He served two terms as Paulist president, and currently is director of the Paulist candidates’ one-year program in Oak Ridge, New Jersey.
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