Modern-day evangelicals are increasingly viewing Catholicism simply as another denomination within the totality of the Christian faith, much in the same way we have historically viewed Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian denominations as evangelical, for example. This lowering of theological arms is a clear indication that we are continuing to stray away from the Gospel path that has historically viewed Catholicism as a heretical eclipsing of the very Gospel itself, in the same way they view us as having heretically strayed from the authority of Rome over us. Much of that Scripturally informed conviction seems to be disappearing now, though.
Within the evangelical church, walls are coming down where more and more churches are participating with Catholic ministries on all kinds of fronts. In the theological realm, evangelical leaders are coming together with Catholic leaders in some form of unity (not sure exactly what kind to be honest). This has been happening for a while and is really nothing new, (based upon the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement, signed by ministers from both camps) in the 1990’s, but it seems to be getting out of control. Confusion abounds.
In the world’s eyes though, this is a good thing: moving forward past the highly divisive Reformation issues; getting over “pesky,” “outdated,” “hair-splitting theological” issues that keep us from the amorphous worldly “unity” that is exalted as a god in our culture. To stand in opposition to such unity, as I am doing, to the world at least, is foolishness. But the Gospel, that is the Biblical Gospel, is foolishness to those who are perishing and makes no sense to the world. To stand against a popular ideology for the sake of the Gospel is highly unpopular, even within the church now unfortunately.
Much of this has come about from a total disregard of theological (Biblical) understanding and education in both the evangelical and Catholic realms (though I will admit more in the evangelical world than the Catholic world, seeing as how Catholics actually require you to go through a confirmation class in which you must learn the faith). This also has to do with evangelicals folding to cultural demands for religious relativism. But this great confusion is also massively propagated by those in leadership within the evangelical community who are either openly in ministry cooperation with Catholic organizations (for a “good cause,” forget the Gospel distinctions) or who have left evangelicalism altogether for Rome.
This blurring of distinctions is highlighted the most in the departure of Francis Beckwith from his position as President of the Evangelical Theological Society in return to Rome. Interesting to note though is the title of his new book coming out in the next few months speaking to all of this: Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic. Evangelical Catholic? This type of language sends all kinds of mixed signals to a whole lot of lay people who are deeply confused as to how evangelicals relate to Catholics, both historically and in our modern day. This is just one more reason why theological education and training are vastly important, not just because it helps us grow in our knowledge of the Scriptures for the preparing of our minds for God’s glory, but also because it keeps us from error and grants us a great level of discernment when it comes to competing “gospels” out in the world.
The differences between evangelicals and Catholics are not minute: they relate to how we understand the very Gospel itself. They are not unimportant distinctions. We both believe each other, on matters of Biblical teaching concerning how we are saved in particular, to be teaching heresy and literally leading people astray to their eternal damnation (though even the Pope has made clear modern Catholics believe there are many outside of Rome’s authority who are saved but acting in disobedience to God by resisting the “infallible authority of The Church” over them … like me). Sounds like more folding to Western ideologies if you ask me, but nevertheless, it is so.
James White points out something important though on a recent blog entry concerning all of this, and in particular Beckwith’s statements, statements he also made on an entry I wrote a while back concerning N.T. Wright, here, that there is nothing new under the sun. I was slow to see this at the time when Beckwith responded to me. In calling himself an Evangelical Catholic, Beckwith, it seems at least on the surface, seeks to bridge a divide that has existed for centuries.
So to bridge this gap, he is attempting to show us “confused evangelicals” that the problem really isn’t as big of a problem as we make it out to be, that the issue at the heart of our debate is how we evangelicals view our justification through the lens of the Reformation imputation model (Christ’s righteousness is counted ours through faith alone) versus the infusion model (Christ’s righteousness is infused into our spirit whereby we are literally, in this life, made holy unto God, unto justification). Interestingly, N.T. Wright says basically the same thing, but I digress.
But as White points out, this itself, though Beckwith would seem to posit it as a new refining of the argument that we evangelicals haven’t already dealt with before, goes right to the heart of the very issue that has been debated between us for 500 something years now, doctrines that people died by torture for during the Reformation, doctrines that explain the very Gospel through which we may be saved.
So, yes, the divide between Catholics and evangelicals is not something to take in a light-hearted manner. Just as an example, evangelical ministry service work must be kept separate from Catholic ministries of service. Why, you say? The Gospel is at stake. How? Well, if we begin to compromise on the idea that there are strong enough Scriptural boundaries setup between us on how we are saved theologically (i.e. the Gospel, to put it bluntly); and compromising in this way in order that we may perform service work alongside Catholics whom we have historically considered outside of the grace of the Gospel … then it is only a matter of time before we too will slide back to Rome, just as Beckwith has.
Beckwith is a striking example of what happens when we compromise on the great eternal Scriptural truths of the Gospel, recovered from Rome in the Reformation. For Beckwith though, as he has said, this was just “confusion” of what Catholicism was teaching concerning justification … or rather, he never understood the point of contention to begin with and was always a Catholic maybe?
As far as the evangelical church is concerned, could it be, at least in this area, we are folding under a presupposed cultural norm of relativistic thinking that is now translating into how we view service work between evangelicals and Catholics, that we can come together as “one people” regardless of creeds (Creeds and Deeds – Michael Horton) for the sake of others, nevermind the Gospel by which people are either saved through faith alone or lost forever by unbelief? Should we not instead, with our own resources and talents, form organizations of our own to meet the needs of the poor and helpless, in order to bring them the greatest Aid of all, the Gospel of Jesus Christ that supernaturally changes us from the inside out by His work alone?
This seems to me to be the highest priority of the evangelical church: ministering the Gospel to a dying world. And we should do this through the means of service to others, but service as a means, not an end. Replacing the priority of the Gospel with service as an end is eternally dangerous. Using service as an instrument to further God’s Kingdom (which in reality is making disciples through the preaching of the Gospel) is ideal for it is what we see Jesus and the Apostles do over and over in the Scriptures.
We must, for the sake of the Gospel and the glory of God, be very careful, for we are treading on thin ice in regard to the evangelical/Catholic compromise that is taking place. May God, by His mercy in the cross toward us through the justifying work of Christ, continue to preserve us in the truth: that we are saved by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (solus Christus). There is no other hope, for this is what the Scriptures have always taught, for they are the immutable Word of God. This Gospel hope is that God alone saves sinners. Catholics disagree. There can be no consensus on these things between us, for these are things we both believe will separate us for eternity.